U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2011 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 appropriation for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) science programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 40,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

USDA supported scientific research strengthens food safety, water quality, agriculture production, clean energy, and animal and public health. The ASM endorses the Administration’s proposed FY 2011 funding for the USDA’s science and food safety programs, including $1.5 billion for the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and about $1 billion for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The ASM strongly endorses the proposed $429 million for the USDA’s recently created NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) as an important step, but encourages Congress to fund AFRI at its fully authorized level of $700 million.  

Agriculture in the United States produces $300 billion worth of products each year. USDA employees including, scientists, inspectors, educators, and regulatory experts, deliver public services through more than 300 programs here and abroad.  Increased funding will strengthen programs focused on threats to the US food supply, as well as climate change and other environmental challenges facing our agribusiness sectors. Funding also will sustain the USDA support for basic and applied research at the nation’s universities and land grant institutions.  

The recently established, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funds research, education, and extension activities that advance knowledge critical to US public health and our national economy. The USDA also formulated new food safety rules in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These science based actions align with the agency’s FY 2011 strategy to focus USDA research on high impact solutions like radically improved food safety and innovations in biofuels and climate stress resistant crops. The ASM urges the Congress to recognize the importance of USDA science with strong FY 2011 funding levels.

Improving Food Safety and Security

The USDA is responsible for ensuring that our meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. These products, from both domestic and foreign sources, account for roughly 20 percent of the US food supply. There are innumerable possibilities for contamination within the massive system that feeds Americans, who spend nearly $1.2 trillion on food annually. Disease outbreaks from foodborne microbial pathogens persist as sporadic public health crises, and about 76 million new cases of food related illness are reported each year, with likely many more unreported. A new report estimates the total economic impact of US foodborne illness to be a combined $152 billion annually.

In 2007, and again in 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) listed “revamping federal oversight of food safety” among its high risk areas demanding immediate federal attention and resources. Last September, another GAO report called for the FDA and USDA to close gaps in their collaborative oversight of imported foods. In 2009, the new Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) co-chaired by the Secretaries of the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services recommended actions that will shape how USDA science affects future food safety standards.  The proposed FY 2011 USDA budget would specifically address several key FSWG findings, including the development of better, high tech tools to reduce the prevalence of pathogens, as well as risk based methods for targeting inspections of USDA regulated products.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)

The ASM supports the Administration’s proposed $1.5 billion for the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  In 2009, the newly created NIFA replaced the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services (CSREES) program as the USDA’s extramural research enterprise. Its principal responsibility is linking together a diverse nationwide collection of federal, state, and higher education entities involved in agriculture related research. Like its predecessor, NIFA supports new scientific discoveries and provides federal leadership in key areas including food safety, climate change, clean energy and public education.

The NIFA’s mission is to fund projects at the state and local level through 60 target driven programs, which have been grouped by the USDA into a dozen national emphasis areas:

  • Agricultural Systems
  • Animals
  • Biotechnology & Genomics   
  • Economics & Community Development
  • Education
  • Environment & Natural Resources
  • Food, Nutrition & Health     
  • International
  • Pest Management
  • Plants
  • Technology & Engineering
  • Families, Youth & Communities

Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)

The ASM strongly supports the Administration’s proposed budget for AFRI of $429 million, an increase of $166 million from FY 2010.  AFRI, the nation’s leading funding source for basic and applied sciences in agriculture, was created by the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 as a competitive grants program for research, extension, and education activities.  The ASM supports the end goal of funding AFRI to its fully authorized level of $700 million annually and stresses that a FY 2011 budget of $429 million is only a crucial first step.

Funding for AFRI will support critical USDA initiatives on biofuels, global climate change, international food security, food safety, and nutrition.

Through competitive, peer reviewed grants, AFRI promotes creative solutions across disciplines throughout the United States. Grants awarded in 2010 will be larger in size and longer in duration than previous CSREES awards, matching resources with the magnitude of challenges currently faced by agriculture.

USDA supported discoveries have significant health and economic impact.  In 2009, researchers reported a protein in Clostridium bacteria that protects spores of the foodborne pathogen from heat and sodium nitrite, imparting resistance to common food hygiene techniques. C. perfringens is the second most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness in the United States, affecting as many as 250,000 people each year. A new poultry vaccine against Campylobacter bacteria, using genetically engineered Salmonella to induce antibodies in chicks, is under development. Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of US foodborne illness, infecting an estimated 2.4 million people annually. Contaminated poultry is a significant reservoir for human infection and, more importantly, infection by drug resistant strains of Campylobacter.

Multi year AFRI grants awarded in 2009 include projects to (1) sequence the genomes of Chlamydiaceae bacterial species that cause severe livestock diseases and significant annual economic losses, to inform drug and vaccine development; (2) determine the fate of antibiotic containing poultry litter applied to pastures as fertilizer, testing antibiotic levels in surface waters affected by runoff; and (3) develop a new soil-phosphorus index based on molecular biological and biochemical assays of soil microorganisms. Current AFRI funding opportunities for FY 2011 include projects in carbon cycle science and in risk assessment of biotechnology generated agricultural products.

Agriculture Research Service (ARS)

Since FY 2009, the ARS budget has decreased by more than a staggering thirteen percent.  This disturbing trend is continued with the Administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget for the ARS of $1.22 billion, a further 4 percent reduction from FY 2010.  ASM strongly urges Congress to fund the ARS with at least $1.4 billion in FY 2011 to begin to regain the critical research capabilities lost with previous reductions.

The ARS is the Department’s principal in house research component, with an 8,000 member workforce that includes 2,100 scientists from diverse disciplines. It maintains about 1,200 research projects at more than 100 US locations and four overseas laboratories. Its national research programs include food safety, global climate change, bioenergy, and food animal production, among others. To strengthen its own research efforts, ARS has a long history of partnering with commercial firms to transfer ARS technologies to the marketplace. Current ARS research projects include the following:

  • Determine the dose-response relationships for botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) and ricin in animal models; optimize sample preparation for recovery of toxins from food; and develop rapid tests for BoNT and ricin
  • Identify natural compounds to improve activity of fungicides for treatment of apples; determine target genes to improve prevention of apple decay; develop early detection of pathogenic Penicillium on apples
  • Apply genomics and bioinformatics methodologies to identify potentially usable traits of maize and grasses with biofuel applications

The ARS portfolio also utilizes international research partnerships to address global issues. Food safety and food security, for example, must be dealt with far beyond the United States, which imports 15–20 percent of its food supply and is vulnerable to migrating pathogens. Current collaborations include an Argentina study of immune responses to the virus that causes foot and mouth disease in cattle, to identify the genetic basis of why some animals are more resistant to disease; and the creation of a virtual Joint US - Sino Food Safety Research Center with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, to promote training and research programs in China and the cooperative development of new analysis methods like biomarker screening for Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens.  

Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

The ASM endorses the Administration’s FY 2011 budget for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service of $1.05 billion. Sufficient funding for the FSIS is crucial to successful oversight of the nation’s food supply.

The FSIS provides the USDA regulatory force to ensure the safety of domestic and imported meat, poultry and egg products (liquid, frozen, and dried). It employs about 9,250 full time staff, including more than 8,500 deployed in the field. FSIS personnel inspect more than 6,280 federally regulated meat, poultry, and egg product plants in 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands.  In FY 2009, those facilities processed 150 million head of livestock and nine billion poultry carcasses.

The FSIS science-based inspection system, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, emphasizes prevention and control of foodborne threats to public health. FSIS inspectors verify that individual food producers and processors meet HACCP requirements, determined by routine sampling of products for pathogens like Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. In FY 2009, FSIS personnel condemned more than 527 million pounds of poultry and 227,000 head of livestock during pre and post slaughter inspections. That year, more than 3.4 billion pounds of meat and poultry were presented to FSIS for import from 20 eligible countries, with 6.6 million pounds refused entry or rejected post inspection. Also in FY 2009, there were 71 recalls of FSIS regulated commercial products, totaling 9.5 million pounds; and 27 recalls were linked to contamination by Listeria and E. coli bacteria.

Education and Collaboration

The USDA is the lead federal agency for higher education in the food and agriculture sciences; in particular, NIFA’s Office of Higher Education Programs links teaching, research and extension activities. Its mission includes the training of food and agriculture scientists and other professionals. Ten percent of the AFRI budget is marked for USDA Strengthening Awards and postdoctoral fellowships. The proposed FY 2011 budget allocates up to $5 million for pre and postdoctoral grants, designed to create “a cadre of NIFA Fellows” as agriculture’s next generation of scientists, educators, and practitioners. Many of the AFRI funded programs require that education and outreach activities be integrated with research components.

Fiscal support for USDA science yields benefits that reach far beyond the agency’s immediate responsibilities. The agency routinely establishes collaborations with other federal agencies, state agencies, land grant universities, non profit organizations, professional societies, commodity groups and grower associations, private industry, the military, various foreign government and academic entities, and other groups. For example, FSIS participates in the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network with the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and, with the FDA, is responsible for the Healthy People 2010 food safety objectives. In October, USDA agreed to help FDA personnel develop new safety rules for fresh produce. Last year, the FDA and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service created an online tool to help farmers and producers identify and fix vulnerabilities in their production processes. FSIS will partner with other government agencies to provide on-site expertise at the new Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center for Import Safety, recently opened in Washington, DC, by the US Customs and Border Protection agency.

The proposed FY 2011 USDA budget will support much needed improvements in the agency’s ability to carry out its regulatory duties more efficiently and more quickly. Computing capabilities will be upgraded and expanded within key program areas like FSIS. The USDA expects to begin phased in implementation of its Public Health Information System (PHIS) in October, automating food safety verification and sampling procedures by FSIS personnel. PHIS will link in real time with the CDC’s PulseNet human outbreak system, addressing in part the GAO’s criticism of interagency gaps in federal food oversight.

Conclusion

The ASM urges Congress to increase research and education funding in the USDA budget, and provide at least $1.5 billion for NIFA, at least $429 million for AFRI, at least $1.4 billion for ARS, and $1 billion for FSIS.

Research in the agricultural and biological sciences is imperative to combat current and future threats to human, environmental, plant and animal health. The research supported by the USDA should be a priority that deserves steady, predictable and sustainable funding; the future of our agricultural systems, a basis for human health, relies on it.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2011 appropriation for the USDA.

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