Potential deep cuts in two Texas state agency budgets could pose serious challenges to assuring food safety, market enhancement and agricultural economic development.

The Texas Department of Agriculture could see funding cuts ranging from 41 percent to 45 percent, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said at the Texas Food Safety Conference at Austin.

His counterpart in the Texas Department of Health, David Lakey, M.D., said his department also faces deep cuts, especially for funding approved during the last legislative session to support additional personnel to deal with an increased number of license requests.

“Licenses have increased by 70 percent over the past five years,” Lakey says, “but staff numbers had remained the same. The last Texas legislature increased the agency’s budget and allowed us to hire new staff.” That funding is in jeopardy in the current legislative session.

“We aren’t certain how it will end up,” he says. “The additional revenue is not currently in our budget.”

Staples says TDA budget cuts could affect the department’s market initiatives and economic development.

“We will have to work with our partners. Texas is going through a difficult time and the legislature has to make some difficult decisions. We need to make certain those decisions keep Texas a place where people want to move and where they can have jobs.”

Both say food safety remains a critical part of their agencies’ missions.

“Food safety is important to the Department of Agriculture,” Staples says. “It’s important to the produce industry and it’s important to the consumer — the food safety problem affects all of the industry.”

Industry efforts, from producers to packers, shippers and retailers, continue to assure the public that “the United States has the most abundant, safest food supply in the world,” he says.

“Consumers expect safe food,” Lakey says. “Over the last five years we’ve had several food-borne illness issues in the U.S. Some were associated with fruits and vegetables; some were linked to imports; but some high profile cases were linked to domestic production. We have areas that need attention.”

Lakey says several pieces of legislation, introduced but not yet passed, would help his agency do a better job. Requiring licensing for some produce handlers who are currently exempt from licensing would help, he says. “In these situations we have no means to enforce regulations.”

Legislation to require licensing for these entities was introduced in the last session, but wasn’t adopted. It has been introduced again this year and has passed the senate, Lakey says.

The agency also supports additional testing, but understands, he says, that new regulations must be sensitive to the industry while balancing the needs for public health. A bill was introduced last session to increase testing, but wasn’t adopted. “Some in the industry objected and said those already in compliance would be subject to more regulations.

“We’re also trying to strengthen our ability to respond to events,” Lakey says. A recent grant will fund a rapid response team to deal with foodborne illnesses. “The funds allow us to purchase equipment and supplies, train personnel, improve our ability to enhance inspections, and build infrastructure.”

He and Staples agree that cooperation between the agencies will be critical to support the agriculture industry and to insure public health.

“We are identifying areas of crossover and ways to share information,” Lakey says. “We have an agreement on training each others’ staffs and to coordinate with other agencies.”

“Better communication is essential,” Staples says. “It’s critical that we share information.”

He says agencies must be alert to misinformation that scares consumers. He cited recent media descriptions of the H1N1 virus as “swine flu,” a misidentification that hurt the U.S. swine industry “overnight. People do not contract the virus from swine,” he says.

“It’s important that we choose words carefully when communicating on food and health issues.”