Giant spending bill includes money for food safety center

WASHINGTON - The Central Valley will host the nation’s newest food safety center, thanks to the sprawling spending bill set for final congressional approval this week.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein tucked into the bill $1.5 million to establish a Food and Drug Administration “Center of Excellence” atthe University of California at Davis. The center will lead research on protecting U.S. food supplies.

“We’re elated that it’s found its way into the appropriations bill,” said Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the U.C. Davis School of VeterinaryMedicine. “This is really of critical importance to us in California, because California is really the (country’s) breadbasket.” The new foodsafety center is supposed to help prevent catastrophes like the September 2006 contamination of Salinas Valley spinach that killed threeand sickened more than 200 people nationwide.

It will be the first FDA program of its kind on the West Coast. Davis is already home to an existing Western Institute for Food Safetyand Security, which allocates state and industry research dollars.

Osburn said the new center will probably employ two FDA scientists plus additional support staff as well as university scientists; it willalso distribute grants to other researchers.

“There is clearly much to be done to enhance (and) assure food safety and defense on imported foods,” said Dr. Jerry Gillespie, formerdirector of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security.

While it’s noteworthy for the Valley, the food safety earmark is a tiny sliver in the omnibus fiscal 2008 spending package.There are many other items like it, as lawmakers used the must-pass bill to steer federal dollars homeward.

Several small Yosemite-area schools, for instance, pick up about $125,000 for educating the children of National Park Service workers.The Tulare County district attorney’s office receives about $352,000 for its ACTION Project targeting agricultural crime.

An ongoing San Joaquin Valley ozone study receives about $1.4 million, while the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District gets$5 million for work on reducing diesel emissions.

There’s money to widen Friant Road in Fresno County, and to improve Manteca’s water treatment plant.

Totaling about $474 billion, the omnibus spending bill defies textbook explanations for how Congress works.

In theory, lawmakers should approve 12 separate spending bills by Oct. 1. In practice, this rarely happens. Stymied this year bypartisan divisions and President Bush’s veto threats, the Democratic-controlled Congress missed its deadlines and ultimately rolled thespending bills into a 3,710-page package.

“In the wee hours this morning, the omnibus emerged from the bowels of the Capitol,” Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers forCommon Sense, declared Monday.

The self-styled taxpayers’ organization objects to earmarks, which number an estimated 9,000 in the omnibus bill. House MinorityLeader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the bill “troubling and unacceptable,” and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, complained thatlawmakers had “less than 24 hours to read through the bill.” But it appeared to have momentum.

Some earmarks protect ongoing projects, like the San Joaquin Valley air quality work. Others initiate new programs, like the FDA foodsafety center. Even new programs, though, can be years in the making.

Gillespie began proposing an FDA food safety center about six years ago. He came close last year when the Senate approved funding,but resistance by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Granite Bay, killed the idea.

Doolittle has since stepped down from the House Appropriations Committee pending an investigation into his relationship with disgracedformer lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He was no in position this year to block the FDA spending.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to develop means of preventing food contamination,” Osburn said.