Photo courtesy of the Conn. Agricultural Experiment Station web site

Amid worsening fiscal forecasts, public health experts are urging legislators to reject Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal to slash $240,000 in funding from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Agricultural Station laboratory regularly tests food for melamine, antibiotics and chemical contaminants.

The proposed cut may seem small considering the $18.4 billion budget, however, scientists who work at the Connecticut Food, Environment, and Product Safety Laboratory say the urgent need for food surveillance is demonstrated by the recent discovery of Salmonella-laced peanut butter in the state, as well as scares about the melamine in milk products from China, where tainted formula caused infant deaths.

“If the legislature doesn’t act to restore funding, what is going to prevent tainted products from being sold in Connecticut?” says Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health Inc., a Yale-affiliated group of doctors, public health professionals and public policy experts. “Connecticut has one of the premier analytical laboratories in the nation, and is often called upon to test food products entering the country from overseas.”

The Ag Station’s analytical laboratory also tests many other consumer products, both domestic and imported. After the lab found unacceptably high levels of lead (a nerve toxin) in toys, CAES led the national recall of painted toys and crayons imported from China. Among the metals the agency tests for are lead, arsenic and chromium (including hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing contaminant made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich).

“CAES does high-quality testing for heavy metals in soil or pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables,” adds David Brown, a public health toxicologist with Environment and Human Health Inc. “The agency not only has specialized equipment, but also the intellectual expertise to perform, very economically, analyses and sophisticated chemical studies to safeguard health and safety.”

“One of our most important jobs is surveillance,” says State Chemist MaryJane Incorvia Mattina, head of the Department of Analytical Chemistry at CAES. “To date, we have found widespread, low-level melamine contamination in products imported from China. We are currently testing eggs for melamine in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state departments of agriculture, consumer protection and public health.”

The agency’s Department of Analytical Chemistry was selected, through a competitive process, as one of eight state laboratories across the country to receive cooperative agreement funding from the FDA as a chemistry participant in the nationwide Food Emergency Response Network. “Our agency has been around since 1875 and its laboratory is one of the best in the country,” says CAES Director Louis A. Magnarelli, who says the governor’s latest round of spending cuts—the third deficit mitigation plan—is jeopardizing a position he had hoped to fill in the analytical chemistry department.

“We had been approved to refill a position for a chemist who retired,” adds Mattina. “The budget cut will have a critical impact on the work we do, which has expanded over the past four or five years. There are other options, such as voluntary furloughs among management.”

“Unfortunately we are in a situation where there’s a hiring freeze,” said Rell’s spokesman Rich Harris. “However, there are certain health and safety exceptions being made in specific cases. CAES’ director can raise the funding issue with the Office of Policy and Management.”

CAES promotes efforts to reduce pesticide use, helps control invasive plants in lakes and ponds, and works to safeguard water quality. CAES scientists not only provide analytical testing to ensure the safety of the food supply, but also grow crops for biodiesel fuel. The state-supported research institution tests insects and animals to prevent the spread of West Nile virus and Lyme disease, among other pathogens. Budget cuts could impair the state’s ability to counter a potentially deadly outbreak of E. coli or equine encephalitis, both of which occurred in other states last year.

With agencies like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission handicapped by cutbacks at the federal level, funding cuts at the analytical laboratory will impair the state’s ability to respond to terrorist threats. “Connecticut’s laboratory has been designated by the federal government as a national response center if the country’s water or food supplies are attacked,” says Alderman. “Can Connecticut afford this vital laboratory to be under-staffed and under-funded?”

“It’s vitally important to safeguard our food and protect against environmental toxins,” says state Rep. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford. “Even in dire economic times, we must protect the health and safety of our citizens.”

The legislature is expected to debate Rell’s deficit mitigation plan today.

The plan Rell submitted to the legislature in December calls for shifting $17.9 million in public campaign finance funds and $35 million in energy assistance funds back to the general fund and includes $7.2 million in spending cuts. It also resurrects the controversial bottle bill, which failed to gain much traction during the Nov. 24 special session.

In addition Rell’s plan calls for taking $12 million from the state’s tobacco and health trust fund, $10 million from the renewable energy investment fund; and $10 million from farmland preservation, affordable housing and historic preservation accounts.