The looming death of S. 510–a bill to modernize our decades old food safety system–is either economically or politically driven, likely a combination of both.  The bill is a measure that should enjoy bipartisan support, but legitimate questions about the measure’s funding have been raised, most notably by Tom Coburn, MD, republican senator from Oklahoma.  Senator Coburn summarized his economic concerns about S. 510 recently in a statement on his website:

The legislation will cost $1.4 billion over 5 years. This cost does not include an additional $230 million in expenditures that are directly offset by fees collected for those activities (re-inspections, mandatory recalls, etc.). The total cost of the bill is over $1.6 billion over 5 years. Of these costs, $335 million are for non-FDA programs – the food allergy grant program, implementation grants to assist producers, assistance grants to states and Indian Tribes.


If future appropriations do not add up to the amount CBO [Congressional Budget Office] is estimating, the likely result is that none of these provisions can be fully implemented, or worse, the FDA is forced to cut corners in other areas it regulates (drugs/devices/etc.) to fund this added regulatory burden on foods.

Without paying for this bill, at best we are just passing it for a press release, and at worst, we shackle the FDA with unfunded mandates.

Since it appears that we are again in planning mode for the next food safety bill, rather than planning for the implementation of S. 510, it is worthwhile to go back to the drawing board and consider all aspects of legitimate arguments both for and against a revision of our fragmented system. 

Cost is, of course, as Senator Coburn says a very legitimate point to consider.  1.6 billion over 5 years is a lot of money.  But also worthy of consideration is the cost of more inaction.  Nobody–whether Senator Coburn or anybody else–can be pleased with what our current level of investment on food safety is buying us.  Salmonella has sickened thousands of people this year, even without the massive outbreak and recall linked to Wright County Egg.  E. coli outbreaks have fortunately not occurred with as much regularity this year, but one year’s success may not be a trend.  In other words, food safety remains a paramount concern to national public health, and its an issue that’s not going away anytime soon.

So on the issue of cost:  lest we forget, an interesting study was published this year by Robert L. Scharff on the total costs attriutable annually to foodborne disease.  The study is not exact because it attempts to measure certain economic costs of foodborne illness that are not susceptible to precision estimating, such as pain and suffering and the cost of premature death.  But the study also considers many costs that are, in fact, susceptible to precise calculation, and it does give voice to the other very real, though difficult to measure, costs of foodborne disease. 

Scharff estimates that foodborne illness costs the United States $152 billion dollars every single year.  Thus, using Scharff’s study as a maximum cost figure, the $1.6 billion estimated by the Congressional Budget Office is 95 times LESS than the annual estimated cost of foodborne disease (a/k/a further inaction).  The point is not that the $1.6 billion dollar cost of S. 510 needs to materialize from nowhere; it is that the cost of belated action, or worse yet further inaction, may be an even worse outcome.