The New York Times on Sunday sharply questioned proposed food safety budget cuts, pointing to potential public health and economic consequences.

The House has voted to cut more than $88 million from this year’s meat inspection budget at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $242 million from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food programs, compared with 2010 levels.

The Times notes that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service budget pays for inspectors at over 6,300 meat plants charged with processing the nation’s meat and poultry supply.

“To ensure the safety of these products, inspectors must be on site at all times,” the editorial reads. “If they’re not, the plant must stop work. House Democrats say the budget cuts would require 37 to 40 furlough days for many of the 8,600 inspectors. Even a conservative estimate would put the loss of meat and poultry production at about $11 billion over the next seven months — a very large dent in the $177 billion annual business. It could also make a large dent in Americans’ household budgets, as reduced supplies drive up costs.”

“After recent problems with tainted peanut butter, spinach, nuts and eggs, Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration new authority and responsibility to monitor food safety,” the piece continues. “We are all for savings, but these proposed cuts make no sense at all.”

By contrast, Senate Democrats introduced a 7-month continuing resolution proposal–which would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year–that exempts food safety programs from budget cuts.

In a statement last week, Democrats on the Senate Appropriations committee released a summary of their proposal that blasted House GOP efforts to slash food safety budgets at both FDA and USDA.

“The House CR not only includes draconian cuts to specific programs, it also includes a rescission of unspecified obligations by the amount of $585 million from the Department of Agriculture. These unnamed cuts are on top of rescissions the House already took in specific programs, leaving USDA the task of taking cuts from ongoing programs that have already been cut to unsustainable levels,” reads the summary.

Senate Democrats also blasted proposed cuts in FDA’s inspection budget: “This would result in large-scale reductions of domestic and foreign inspections of food and drug manufacturers, including 2,000 fewer inspections of food and medical product firms, 10,000 fewer import inspections, and 6,000 fewer laboratory sample analyses of food and medical products. Essentially, the ability of the Agency to ensure that America has the safest supply of food and medical products in the world would be diminished.”

House and Senate leadership have until March 18 to strike another deal on spending for 2011.