The US Agriculture Department, which is seeking a record US$ 905 million (€1,024m) for food safety spending next year, will hold a series of public meetings on ways to better protect the nation's food supply, a top USDA official said yesterday.
Elsa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the $ 905 million requested for fiscal 2003 would pay for 7,600 food inspectors, expand research and help small processors reduce the risk of salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne diseases.
Contaminated food is blamed for more than 76 million US illnesses and 5,000 deaths annually, according to government data. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service received $ 877 million from Congress for fiscal 2002, which ends on 30 September. A series of nine public meetings on food-borne disease and testing will be held this year, beginning in May, Murano said.
"These forums will set the stage for what we hope to be a long-term dialogue with academia, consumers and industry to share their expertise on the future direction of these important issues," she said.
After Murano testified, a coalition of 14 consumer and public health groups gathered at the USDA headquarters a few blocks away to protest against the Bush administration's food safety policies. The coalition wants the USDA to make public its salmonella test results, with details on how major food companies performed. It also wants the government to require US plants making hot dogs and ready-to-eat deli meats to test for the listeria bacteria and beef plants to test for the deadly E. coli 0157:H7.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food safety expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the coalition was especially concerned about the impact of a December federal appeals court ruling. The court found the USDA overstepped its authority by trying to shut down a Supreme Beef Processors Inc. plant in Texas after the plant failed a series of salmonella tests.
The USDA has said it will continue to test for salmonella in meat processing plants and shut those that fail to meet food safety requirements. The $905 million sought for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is only part of the department's overall food safety spending plan.
The USDA is asking Congress for a total of $2.367 billion, up 7 per cent from current spending, for a range of programmes to protect the food supply from sabotage or natural outbreaks of crop and animal diseases. The USDA has a current budget of about $76.5 billion for all the department's programmes, including food stamps, farmland conservation, humanitarian food aid and export credits.