Other than a memo put out by the White House earlier this month, which forecast reduced food inspections and meat inspector furloughs, there is not much known about exactly how the sequester, scheduled to kick in on Friday, will impact federal food safety oversight.
According to the document put out by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the nearly 9 percent across-the-board budget cut could mean that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees 80 percent of the food supply, could cut 2,100 food facility inspections and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, in charge of meat and poultry safety, could be forced to furlough all its employees for a total of 15 days to meet the reductions.
Because FSIS furloughs would include meat inspectors and meat plants can’t process for interstate commerce without a USDA inspector on duty, livestock producers, processors, and meat buyers are extremely concerned that furloughs could wreak havoc on the entire industry. The American Meat Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and several others have written to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack arguing that the department actually has a legal obligation to provide inspection, which would avert shutdowns and avoid meat shortages.
Vilsack has repeatedly said that USDA would have no choice but to furlough inspectors under sequestration. This week, he told Reuters TV that while USDA would try to stagger the furloughs to minimize the impact to the industry, the move was unavoidable and would eventually directly impact the meat supply.
“At some point, you’re going to have shortages,” said Vilsack, according to Reuters. “The reality is there are going to be disruptions.”
On Wednesday, nine U.S. senators from important livestock states wrote to USDA asking for details on the department’s plan to reduce spending and any legal justification the agency might have for not providing meat inspection.
The lawmakers, which included Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Jerry Moran (R-KS), also asked FSIS to provide a plan on how exactly it will furlough employees and explain why it “cannot use furloughs in other mission areas in order to keep FSIS inspectors on the job.”
“We are confident you have the ability to implement sequestration at USDA without jeopardizing the ability of Americans to feed their families and seriously hurting U.S. farmers, meat and poultry production and workers in those facilities,” they wrote.
An FSIS official confirmed that the budget squeeze would result in “as much as 15 days” of furloughs for all FSIS employees, including inspectors and said it could lead to more than $10 billion in production losses by directly impacting 6,290 meat and poultry establishments.
“Industry workers would experience over $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices for these products,” said the official, without providing any specifics on how or when the furloughs would begin.
Sequestration at FDA could delay FSMA
Consumer and industry advocates have also expressed concern about the impact the sequester will have on FDA, an agency that has a growing mandate and has recently begun implementing elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act. If the White House estimates are correct and 2,100 fewer inspections would happen under sequestration, it would amount to a 10 percent reduction compared to 2011.
“Anyone who eats should be gravely concerned about across the board budget cuts that will happen if Congress fails to repeal the sequester,” said David Plunkett, a senior food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “With fewer inspections, FDA won’t be able to stop problems at food plants until people start getting sick—or start dying.”
Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine said this week that the agency needs “significant additional resources” to overhaul the nation’s food safety system and sequestration could delay FSMA implementation.
“A loss of resource is obviously going in the wrong direction in terms of our ability to move forward on FSMA,” said Taylor in an interview with Food Safety News. “We’ve said that we can continue with the rulemaking process with current resources – though a loss of resources can slow that down and delay things – but there are impacts we’ve outlined in terms of loss of inspections.”
“It all remains to be seen how it will play out,” said Taylor. “There’s a huge amount of contingency planning and preparation going into how to figure out how to do this. It’s a pretty complicated picture.”
Diane Dorman, president of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a mix of consumer and industry groups that lobby to give the agency more resources, told the FDA’ Science Board on Wednesday she believes the agency’s mission is “at risk” even without the threat of the sequester because its mission and mandate is outpacing its budget.
“Even without the possibility of funding cutbacks, the American people will lose if FDA does not receive increased funding,” she said in her testimony. “Sequestration is the most immediate threat to the FDA’s already-inadequate funding.”
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