Reacting to President Obama’s announcement March 14 of plans to spend money to bolster the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety resources, an expert on the agency, Peter Barton Hutt, expressed amazement at the amount of money cited — $1 billion. Mr. Hutt, a former F.D.A. official and a partner at Covington & Burling in Washington, incisively noted the figure dwarfed current food safety spending, falling short of $500 million in fiscal 2007.
Still, from a broader perspective, and given the outrage sparked by the latest food poisoning outbreak, both of these figures could be characterized as diminutive. Public concern over food safety is far greater than, say, recent discussions over farm and food program spending. But the latter programs make $1 billion dollars seem like a rounding error.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture budget in fiscal 2009 is $95 billion, including about $14 billion for farm and commodity programs and $60 billion for food assistance. U.S.D.A. programs for rural development and international are many times larger than the F.D.A. budget for food safety. In its latest figures, the Census Bureau estimated the size of the food manufacturing industry in 2007 at $589 billion, a number that swells far beyond $1 trillion when the beverage and food service sectors are put into the equation.
Admittedly, all of these "apples and oranges" comparisons still beg the question of how much the federal government should spend to enhance food safety in this country. The question brings to mind the familiar story of President Lincoln being asked how long a man’s legs should be. The president replied, "Long enough to reach the ground." Clearly, food safety’s legs have been dangling by neglect for far too long, much to the public’s mounting disgust. It is hoped that the attention now being devoted in Washington marks a commitment to reverse this shameful omission.