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One of the most overlooked rifts in Washington’s budget debate is the escalating food fight. In the last two years, the U.S. has endured everything from salmonella-contaminated tomatoes to Chinese milk laced with melamine, a potentially lethal ingredient used to make plastic. House Republicans, in their sweep to enact billions in cuts to federal spending, are now looking to trim the fat at food safety agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.

Republicans have proposed reducing the FDA and USDA’s combined budgets by $4.8 billion, 22% below what the President’s 2011 budget requested. The Democratic-led Senate, meanwhile, has moved to cut those agencies’ budgets by $1.1 billion, or 5% below the requested amount. Food safety advocates warn that if the FDA’s funding were dialed back to 2008 levels, the consequences could be severe: Hundreds of FDA inspectors would be laid-off, they say, preventing the surveillance of some 7,000 food facilities. The USDA’s meat inspectors could be furloughed, prompting hundreds of plants across the country to close because federal agents must be present during operating hours. That in turn could shrink the country’s meat supply and send prices soaring.

The debate comes barely two months after President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law. If fully enacted, that initiative would trigger the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in nearly three-quarters of a century. The law basically directs the FDA, which regulates about 80% of what we eat, to preempt, rather than react to, food-borne illness outbreaks. That’s no small matter: Nearly one in six Americans – 48 million people – contract illnesses like salmonella each year. Experts say such illnesses cost consumers and businesses $152 billion annually. Fortifying the FDA’s safety efforts with $1.4 billion in the coming years is a “bargain,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat and one of Congress’s chief food safety advocates.