U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is warning the food industry that foodborne illnesses threaten their operations because the public reacts negatively to outbreaks of food-related health issues.

Hamburg also says if Congress doesn’t provide additional funding to the FDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act will not be effective in preventing increased problems in the years ahead if proposed user fees are rejected because of opposition by the industry.

Hamburg made the comments during a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee meeting last week in Washington after Committee ranking member Sam Farr, D-California, noted that Congress has been unwilling to give FDA the requested resources. Farr admitted that it seems unlikely the Obama Administration’s proposed program of $220 in user fees will pass, largely because of opposition to the measure voiced by the food industry.

"We are not, as a nation, putting the resources into food safety that we should,” Hamburg argued before the Committee.

Hamburg says of most concern is an increase in foodborne illness from imported produce, but reminded the Committee of recent food illness issues caused by domestic peanut and lettuce industries in recent years. 

“We currently have an enormous opportunity to improve the food safety system through the Food Safety Modernization Act, but adequate funding is needed to implement the program effectively,” she added.

Congress passed the act in 2010 and President Obama signed it into law in early 2011 after a series of outbreaks of foodborne illness and food contamination issues involving both domestic and imported food.

Hamburg says without the safety net offered by the Act, food borne illness will increase in the years ahead and noted such outbreaks are costly to the food industry because consumers historically stop eating the foods implicated in illness outbreaks. She says with food imports rising, including 15 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables and nearly 80 percent of seafood, consumers will be faced with more food safety issues than ever before.

“The lack of adequate funding for the Act is of enormous concern because the results are predictable,” Hamburg said, adding that food safety is one of the pressing concerns for consumers in the 21st century.

"Current food imports originate from more than 250,000 foreign establishments in 200 countries," Hamburg said. "As a nation, we enjoy the benefits of but are simultaneously put at risk by a global food supply."

Under terms of the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA is charged with creating food safety standards and the implementation of preventive controls. That would require more frequent inspections at food facilities and new rules and procedures for food imports. The White House has proposed a plan whereby user fees imposed on food companies would fund these services through the Act.

But in late February a coalition of food industry groups drafted a letter to House appropriations leaders indicating a user fee system to support the new standards would represent a food safety tax on consumers, and that would force food companies to pass those fees on to retailers who in turn would raise the price of food to consumers.

"As food companies and consumers continue to cope with a period of prolonged economic turbulence, the creation of a new food tax would mean higher costs for food makers and higher food prices for our consumers," the letter noted. “We urge Congress to adequately fund FDA's food safety responsibilities and to reaffirm its stated opposition to imposing new regulatory taxes on food producers and consumers."

Hamburg says whether funding comes from user fees or through the Congressional budgetary process, more funds will be needed to protect consumers from food-related illness in the years ahead.