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Lawmakers Grill Vilsack on USDA Food Safety Budget

House lawmakers grilled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday on the impact proposed Republican budget cuts would have on key U.S. Department of Agriculture services like food safety inspection.

Democrats posed pointed questions regarding food safety in particular before a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing focused on USDA’s budget for the rest of the fiscal year. The Republican continuing resolution–which would fund the federal government past this Friday when the current bill expires–passed the House last week and contains an $88 million cut to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) budget.

Vilsack again sounded optimistic that a government shutdown would be avoided in the budget standoff.

“We start with the proposition that you are going to get this worked out,” Vilsack told the committee, according to The Hagstrom Report (subscription required).

House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) expressed concerns about the Republican-backed cuts to FSIS’ budget and furloughs and plant closures that could result.

According to The Hagstrom Report, Vilsack confirmed that any quick action would affect FSIS employees because the food safety budget “is predominantly personnel,” but added he hoped there would not be a government shutdown.

Food safety hawk Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), former chair of the subcommittee, pressed Vilsack on the issue.

“We can’t just hope for the best that will come out of this process. How many inspectors would have to be furloughed? How many chickens destroyed? What is in place to assure us we do not want another inspection failure?” Hagstrom quotes DeLauro as saying.

By DeLauro’s account, the cut proposed in HR 1 of $88 million for the rest of the fiscal year–an 8 percent cut from FY 2010 funding levels–would affect the states of Republicans serving on the subcommittee. DeLauro said 15 plants would be closed in Georgia, a shot at Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), the current chair of the ag appropriations subcommittee. She added that 44 plants would be closed in Iowa, a number intended to get subcommittee member Rep. Tom Latham’s (R-IA) attention.

Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and former under secretary at USDA, believes the cuts will be tough for the meat industry to handle.

“Congress isn’t changing law requiring constant presence of inspectors in slaughter plants and daily in processing,” noted Tucker-Foreman, in an email response to Food Safety News. “In a desire to meet commitment to produce big cuts in budget fast they’re setting up collision between irresistible force (campaign promises) and immoveable object (the current law).”

“It’s bad news for consumers,” said Tucker-Foreman. “Disruptions in inspection are likely to increase risk of contamination and could push up prices.”

Tucker-Foreman added that reduced inspection could hurt meat processing plants and impact stakeholders further up the supply chain.

“Bad for farmers and ranchers who won’t be able to get animals inspected and will have to keep feeding them [and it's] a special threat to small processing plants,” she added.

One FSIS inspector, who is not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency, expressed similar concerns.

“On the inspection side, we’ll see increased workloads due to unfilled vacancies at plants needing coverage. We already have more inspectors retiring than we’re hiring,” wrote the inspector in an email. “We won’t be able to focus attention where it’s needed because we’ll feel like we don’t have the time.”

The inspector also noted that small plants could be disparately impacted. “Small plants that only work two days a week might not get covered. If there’s no inspector, they can’t run… Jobs will be lost.”

The House and Senate are expected to agree on a short term, likely two-week stop-gap measure sometime this week, averting government shutdown for the time being.

© Food Safety News