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Food Safety Inspections Dodge the Sequester

Just two months after the White House warned that across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, could have dire consequences for the country, in part because they could weaken food safety protections, it seems food safety has escaped the worst of the impact.

According to the Obama administration, the sequester could have resulted in 11 days of federal meat inspector furloughs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a move that would have disrupted the nation’s meat supply and resulted in 2,100 fewer U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety inspections, an 18 percent cut.

In February, a memo from the White House Office of Management & Budget warned: “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.”

In March, Congress was able to pass a measure to reinstate the funding to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (the agency actually came out ahead, getting $55 million to cover a $52 million cut).

Now, as FDA figures out how to absorb the $209 million cut to food and drug regulation, the agency is saying food safety inspections will be spared too. FDA will scale back training and travel and not facility inspections, an agency official confirmed Monday.

“The 2,100 number was an initial estimate and we were always trying to minimize the impact,” said FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess.

“Our goal is to absorb the cuts without a risk to public health,” said Burgess. “We are working to manage budget reductions through other mechanisms.  We are working on mitigating the inspection reductions to the greatest extent practicable to protect the public health, but we are still in the early stages of executing our budget under sequestration.”

While it appears food safety inspections will dodge the sequester, stakeholders remain concerned that FDA will not have the resources it needs to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act going forward. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the law could require $1.4 billion over five years to roll out, but the agency has received only a small fraction of that in resource increases.

“A loss of resource is obviously going in the wrong direction in terms of our ability to move forward on FSMA,” Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine recently told Food Safety News. Taylor has said that the agency has the resources needed to move forward with the hefty rulemaking that lies ahead, but whether FDA will be able to hire the personnel needed to enforce the law remains in question.

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