Dysfunction in Congress could put federal food safety programs at risk

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The federal government machine has only enough quarters to keep food safety functioning for another month. And was it as simple as putting quarters in a machine to keep it running?  

Instead, the steps required by Nov. 17 are complicated and must be accomplished during an era of Congressional dysfunction.

Start with the fact that the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has not been able to provide the 217 votes required to elect a new Speaker after eight Republicans and all the Democrats voted to remove the old one.

The House cannot take up any other business until it puts somebody in the Speaker’s office.

Only if and when there is a new Speaker can Congress then proceed to appropriations for fiscal year 2024, which began on Oct. 1. To keep the government open,  this must be done only one month from now, on Nov. 17.

To cross this one off the list, Congress has to pass some combination of Appropriations Bills (there are 12) and Continuing Resolutions or CRs

Senate Appropriations, which is not held up by the Speaker contest, today is scheduled to resume consideration of the so-called AG/FDA Minibus.

Until these 2024 Appropriations are decided,  nothing much else will happen.  When fiscal year 2024 began on Oct. 1, the  2018 Farm Bill also expired.

No replacement is in site.

The House says a late farm bill is nothing new because no farm bill this millennium has been approved on time. 

The Secretary of Agriculture says there will be dire consequences until there is a new Farm Bill or an extension on the old one.

For federal food safety programs, the stakes are high.

For the “F” in FDA, there’s a $133 million increase  “to strengthen FDA’s food safety and nutrition capacity, demonstrating the Administration’s ongoing commitment to these responsibilities.”

As reported by the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, the agency that regulates 80 percent of the food supply, “ recently announced a new, transformative vision for the FDA Human Foods Program as a result of findings and recommendations identified through the external evaluation conducted by an expert panel of the Reagan-Udall Foundation and the separate internal review of the agency’s infant formula supply chain response.” The budget complements this vision and provides targeted investments in activities that will protect and promote a safe, nutritious U.S. food supply. 

According to the Alliance, “FDA is requesting funding to modernize oversight of infant formula, empower consumers to make healthier food choices, and reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in the food supply.”

FDA’s total budget authority will come in at $7.2 billion, including $3.3 billion in user fees.

Also seeking Congressional spending authorization is USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Pay and benefits for about 8,700 FSIS employees cost taxpayers just north of $1 billion.

The FSIS reports that about 6,800 employees work at FSIS-regulated establishments. During any government  shutdown,  FSIS inspection personnel will continue to report to their worksites so the nation’s supply of fresh inspected meat and poultry isn’t interrupted 

In addition to domestic production, FSIS regulates meat and poultry imports from 35 countries and U.S. exports to 140 countries.

Prominent in USDA’s budget submission is FSIS’s work to reduce illnesses linked to Salmonella in poultry.

Steve Grossman, Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, says the House could pursue at least a few options. It could “put its entire focus” on passing the 12 appropriations bills or agree to a Continuing Resolution to take the government through March 31, 2024.

Rep. Jim Jordon, the latest candidate for Speaker, suggested that second approach.  He would require a 1 percent cut to go into effect if the Appropriations bills are not agreed to by the March 31 deadline.

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