Concerns voiced over sequester’s effect on food safety

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — With the March 1 deadline for implementing $85 billion in federal government spending cuts for the remainder of fiscal year 2013 under the so-called sequester fast approaching, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration suggested they may have to reduce food inspections. In the case of the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety Inspection Service, a furlough of part of the meat inspection workforce may force meat processing plants to curtail operations.

The Obama administration in a fact sheet issued Feb. 8 cautioned, “The F.D.A. could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products while U.S.D.A.’s F.S.I.S. may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks. These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent Salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E.coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume.”

Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger F.D.A., estimated the F.D.A. may face a cut in funding amounting to  $210 million under the sequester. Mr. Grossman said this would be a reduction of 5.1% of the F.D.A.’s $4.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2013. Unless Congress changes the rules for implementing the sequester, the cuts in funding will affect all programs and initiatives equally.

Mr. Grossman pointed out the sequestration is based on the F.D.A.’s full-year budget, but the cost savings for the entire fiscal year will have to be found and implemented in the seven remaining months of the year.

“Looking only at the remaining seven months, a sequester of $210 million would represent an 8.75% cut (in spending),” Mr. Grossman said. “Many federal agencies are hoping to meet some of their sequester obligations with non-personnel cutbacks, and F.D.A. will do its best to follow this model. However, furloughs and unfilled job vacancies are almost certain. Lay-offs cannot be ruled out if the sequestration runs the entire seven months.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the U.S.D.A. Agricultural Outlook 2013 Forum on Feb. 21 said if the sequester is triggered, every budget line item at the U.S.D.A. will have to be reduced by a certain percentage, and that percentage could be somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% to 6%.

“And that's an annual percentage, which means we have to implement this reduction in the remaining portion of the fiscal year, which will be approximately six months,” Mr. Vilsack said. “That means it is really the impact of the effect of a 10% to 12% reduction of our remaining resources, and unlike normal circumstances where the Congress will direct you to reduce funding but give you the flexibility to choose where and how, this is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item by the same percentage.”

Mr. Vilsack said there may be a degree of flexibility for those parts of the U.S.D.A. with “lots of lines,” but in agencies such as F.S.I.S., where most funding is for food safety inspection personnel, there may be no recourse with regard to furloughing personnel.

“And that is a risk that we now face, because the only way we can absorb a cut of this magnitude is by impacting the people who work in the food safety area of U.S.D.A., and we all know that when we do that, it doesn't just impact those workers,” he said. “It impacts all the processing facilities and plants and production facilities across the country.”

Mr. Vilsack said only congressional action providing for more flexibility in distributing cuts would alter the need for the U.S.D.A. to furlough part of its food safety workforce. Mr. Vilsack also pointed out the Congress and the Obama administration had additional potentially disruptive fiscal decisions to make in the weeks ahead.

J. Patrick Boyle, chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, in a Feb. 11 letter to President Obama said a furlough of necessary inspectors may force meat and poultry plants to close.

“Closing businesses as contemplated by the secretary would, according to U.S.D.A., cause production losses of $10 billion, cost company employees more than $400 million in lost wages, and impose untold losses on the more than 1 million livestock and poultry producers in this country,” he said.

Mr. Boyle said the meat and poultry statutes impose a legal obligation on the U.S.D.A. to provide inspection services.

“To that end, it is incumbent on the secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspections services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act,” he said. “Failure to do so will disrupt not only the operations at meat and poultry processing plants and idle more than 500,000 people who work there, it will also cause significant disruptions throughout the supply chain, from livestock producers, who will be unable to market their animals, to grocery stores and restaurants that will not be able to supply meat and poultry products to their customers.”
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