Salmonella-tainted tomatoes have sickened at least 277, although the Seattle PI’s Andrew Schneider cites a CDC estimate of 8,600 people who’ve become ill during this outbreak. Congress has reacted to this and other food and drug safety problems by forcing additional funding on the FDA, which isn’t allowed to ask for more money than the administration decides it needs. The additional $275 million is small change, though, compared to what’s needed to shore up our overburdened food and drug safety systems.

Contrast this lackluster action to what happened in South Korea when the government made a beef deal with the U.S. that will allow the importation of meat from cows older than 30 months, which are regarded as more likely to carry mad cow disease. (South Korea banned U.S. beef after mad cow disease was detected here in 2003.) A series of protest – the largest drawing more than 80,000 demonstrators – erupted and forced President Lee Myung-bak to offer a public apology and promise to try to modify the regulations.

Last week, Paul Krugman reminded New York Times readers that federal regulatory agencies have been getting progressively more starved for resources since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and have recently been headed by appointees with industry-friendly views. This, he points out, ends up being bad for business:

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.
When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don’t trust us. And while some of that distrust may be irrational — the beef issue has become entangled with questions of Korean national pride, which has been insulted by clumsy American diplomacy — it’s hard to blame them.

The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department’s deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring: because potential foreign buyers didn’t trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets.

If salmonella-tainted tomatoes aren’t enough to prompt our elected officials to make the necessary improvements to our food safety system, perhaps the threat of MRSA will do the trick. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a hard-to-treat and often fatal bacteria, has been found in U.S. pigs and farmworkers. MRSA is a growing problem in the U.S. (and elsewhere); Environmental Defense Fund scientist Rebecca Goldburg told Schneider that it now causes more deaths in the U.S. than AIDS does. Its spread hasn’t been definitively linked to the common practice of dosing livestock with lots of antibiotics, but research suggests this profligate use of antibiotics might be a culprit.

The winners of the next elections will have a lot of urgent problems to deal with. They’ll accomplish a lot just by requiring regulatory agencies to do the jobs they were created to do.