Five days after across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, officially kicked in at most federal agencies, some lawmakers and newspaper fact-checkers are beginning to seriously question whether the doomsday scenario painted by the White House was accurate.
“The sequester hit — and (almost) no one noticed,” wrote Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza in a post Wednesday titled, “Did President Obama cry wolf on the sequester?”
“The sky is falling language seemed overblown, and the devastating consequences amounted to the suspension of public tours at the White House. Obama hasn’t helped himself post-sequester — landing in a bit of political hot water with a mistaken claim about what the sequester would do to janitors on Capitol Hill.”
(White House officials claimed that the sequester would reduce overtime pay for Congressional janitors, therefore hurting their ability to “make ends meet.” Fact-checkers found this claim to be wholly untrue.)
According to a memo put out by the Obama administration last month, food safety is slated to take a big hit under sequestration. As was widely reported in media outlets, including Food Safety News, the White House said all U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service employees, including essential meat inspectors, could be furloughed for up to two weeks and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could conduct 10 percent fewer food safety inspections this year.
“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 the cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume,” the memo warned.
Now that federal agencies are in the thick of sequestration – which was never supposed to actually happen, but was designed to force Congress to strike a broad budget compromise – it is still not clear exactly what the impact will be. When it comes to food safety, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor has confirmed inspections would be scaled back and suggested the sequester could also delay the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has echoed the administration’s memo and said many times that USDA would need to furlough meat inspectors.
The biggest players in food, including the meat industry, were quick to question whether USDA would actually need to pull inspectors out of meat plants – a move that would effectively shut down processing facilities because they must have a USDA inspector on hand to operate.
The industry even argued that USDA had a legal obligation to provide meat inspection. But USDA officials have doubled down, saying there is no flexibility in the law. Under sequestration, agencies have to cut everything equally, so they can’t, for example, move funds from administrative support staff from one program and transfer it to pay for meat inspectors in another program. The sequester comes out to be about a 5 percent total cut, but since the reduction has to be made over the next six months, most budget experts estimate the real cut going forward is close to 9 percent to most agencies.
Last week, several U.S. senators wrote to Vilsack again questioning whether a meat inspector furlough needed to happen and asked USDA to provide the legal rationale for such a move. A few days later, Vilsack told a conference his hands were tied and that there would be disruptions to meat inspection.
“Make no mistake about it, there is not enough flexibility in the sequester language for me to move money around to avoid furloughs of food inspectors,” said Vilsack. “The way this is structured, every line item of our budget and every account that’s not exempted by Congress has to be cut by a certain percentage.”
He noted that on top of the roughly 8,000 meat inspectors in more than 6,000 plants that will be directly impacted by the cuts, there are another 250,000 people who work in the plants who will also be negatively affected.
This week, Vilsack told lawmakers that the furloughs would likely take several months to implement, but details of exactly how and when this would happen and whether the meat supply would actually be disrupted remain to be seen.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a longtime budget hawk, isn’t buying it. He wrote to Vilsack this week and chided USDA for spending money on wine tasting at upcoming conferences during a time of such dire fiscal restraint.
“Because food safety is vital to our nation’s economy and our citizens’ health, I would encourage you to first cancel or eliminate unnecessary spending on travel and conferences,” wrote Coburn. The senator cited the upcoming California Small Farm Conference, which is sponsored by USDA’s Rural Development and Agriculture Marketing Service, that will host speakers from USDA and include field trips and tasting receptions. Next month, another USDA-sponsored conference in Oregon includes wine tasting, according to the letter.
“While these conferences may be fun, interesting and even education get aways for department employees, food inspecting rather than food tasting should be USDA’s priority at this time,” the letter added. Coburn said he is confident that with Vilsack’s leadership, “such dire circumstances can be avoided.”
Asked for a comment on the letter, a USDA spokesperson noted that the department can’t transfer funds from AMS or RD to FSIS under the sequester.
“USDA has aggressively managed travel, conference and administrative costs to achieve $700 million in new efficiencies, savings, and cost avoidances during the last three fiscal years,” said the spokesperson. “While conferences and workshops have decreased significantly in recent years, farmers and other constituents benefit from these forums because they are part of USDA’s role to support agriculture and the American people.”© Food Safety News