By Emily Stephenson and Anna Yukhananov
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When a salmonella outbreak sickened at least 79 people and killed two this past spring in Rhode Island, the state had only seven food safety inspectors.
During the month it took health officials to track the outbreak to a small bakery in Johnston, Rhode Island, the state's other 8,000 licensed food establishments remained virtually uninspected.
Though Rhode Island plans to hire one additional inspector soon, Health Department spokeswoman Annemarie Beardsworth said it won't be enough to fully protect the state's food supply.
"On a daily basis, we're prioritizing based on risk," she said. "So if there's a recall or if we're getting reports of illness, that will at times trump a routine, unscheduled inspection."
The risks of being unprepared for dealing with hard-to-track food contamination gained global attention in recent weeks with an E. coli outbreak in Germany that has killed 39 people.
But as threats to the food supply grow more deadly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is struggling to fund recent food safety reforms.
On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut the FDA's budget by $87 million below the 2011 level, and $205 million below what President Barack Obama's administration requested, as Congress attempts to address a massive U.S. deficit. The cutback takes the FDA back to 2008 funding levels, before several massive outbreaks linked to peanuts and eggs.
And as states try to rein in their own budgets, local food safety programs are already understaffed, making it increasingly difficult to protect the nation's food supply.
FIGHT FOR REFORM
Obama in January signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major overhaul of U.S. food safety laws since the 1930s, aimed at preventing foodborne illness.
The law allows the FDA to conduct more inspections of domestic and foreign food producers, increase collaboration with the U.S. Agriculture Department and state inspection agencies, and enforce mandatory recalls of contaminated products.
One in six Americans gets sick from food each year, and 3,000 people die from foodborne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a recent report, the CDC said the United States has made headway fighting deadly E. coli, but the lack of progress against salmonella show how much remains to be done to keep food safe.
The new legislation gave the FDA sweeping new authority but included no funding to hire more inspectors and meet tight deadlines for issuing new food rules.
In an internal FDA document produced in May, the agency warned that budget cuts would severely hinder its ability to implement food safety reforms. With its drug and medical device departments largely funded by user fees, FDA budget cuts disproportionately hit food safety programs.
"You can change the words on paper, but if you don't have the staff, and you don't have the scientific backup to carry out the law, you haven't fully changed the system," said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, a consumer advocacy group that was involved in getting the law passed.
STATES FALLING BEHIND
The FDA relies on state and local agencies to help inspect some food producers, packagers and other facilities.
The FDA does about 20,000 inspections a year, but states do more than 2 million, mainly focusing on regulating restaurants and grocery stores, said David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization focused on food safety.
But as state budgets are getting squeezed, food safety programs have deteriorated, said Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials.
"A lot of the state programs are down a number of inspectors and, as a result, are unable to collect as many samples as they did or conduct as many inspections as they did," Corby said.
In a 2011 survey of 39 U.S. states, local and state food safety workers said that they felt dwindling resources made an outbreak of foodborne illness more likely.
Lacy Fehrenbach, spokeswoman for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said at least five states reported food safety cuts had already happened during the group's most recent biannual budget survey.
Corby said states were counting on the FDA's new powers to make up for falling budgets, helping to coordinate inspections with states and streamline testing. But in its budget documents, the FDA warned funding cuts could severely hamper its ability to act on that authority.
In past budget cycles, the U.S. Senate has sometimes stepped in to restore FDA funding after initial House cuts, but FDA advocates said they are not counting on it in the current budget-slashing environment.
Democratic representative John Dingell, one of the authors of food safety legislation, on Thursday offered an amendment to move $49 million from the USDA to the FDA's programs.
"At a time when we are witnessing one of the deadliest E. coli outbreaks ever overseas in Europe, the House stands ready to cut funding for our food safety systems. This is indefensible," Dingell said in a statement. His amendment was defeated.
(Editing by Michele Gershberg, Phil Berlowitz)