Congress gets a stark reminder on food safety

The overnight reports in the health section were rather startling. Cantaloupes contaminated with listeria have led to 72 U.S. infections over 18 states, leading to at least 13 deaths. The news comes the same day as a ground-beef recall from Tyson Fresh Meats after an Ohio family fell ill from eating meat contaminated with E. coli.

It’s against this backdrop that congressional Republicans want to — you guessed it — weaken food safety regulations.

Even as these outbreaks occur, however, the Republican Party is continuing its efforts to gut food safety laws aimed at protecting Americans from these types of food-borne illnesses. In June, House Republicans attempted to kill the first significant upgrade in the nation’s food safety laws in more than 70 years, saying the private food industry sufficiently self-policed itself. Last week, presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called for an end to food safety laws that she claimed were stifling job creation….

As Pat Garofalo has noted, one in six Americans is sickened by food-borne illness each year, and more than 3,000 die. And while the GOP cites the cost of new regulations, the annual cost of food illnesses is $152 billion, according to Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project, and the cost of not overhauling outdated food safety laws far exceeds the cost of implementing the new policies the GOP opposes.

That last point is of particular interest. From the GOP’s perspective, investing in food-safety measures is expensive, and when pursuing American austerity measures, seems like a good place to cut back.

But this is a deadly example of “penny wise, pound foolish.” When we cut spending on food safety, we save a little money on inspection, but end up paying a lot of money on health care costs when consumers get sick — making the Republican approach misguided as a matter of public health, public safety, and budgeting.

Also note the legislative context. In December, Americans who eat food received some very good news. A sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, approved by both chambers with large, bipartisan majorities, cleared Congress, and was quickly signed into law by President Obama.

The long-overdue law expands the FDA’s ability to recall tainted foods, increases inspections, demands accountability from food companies, and oversees farming — all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This was the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in more than 70 years.

And then Americans handed new power to congressional Republicans, who’ve made a concerted effort to undermine the law.

The listeria outbreak should be a wake-up call to Congress. It won’t, of course, but it should.