By now, most everyone has heard about the so-called “supercommittee,” an idea cooked up by Washington to help resolve the summer-long standoff over raising the debt ceiling. Twelve lawmakers — six Democrats and six Republicans, half from the House, half from the Senate –have to come up with a proposal to cut $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. They have until Nov. 23 to agree on plan and it has to clear Congress by Christmas.

In today’s polarized political climate, this is a tall order, and maybe even a pipe dream. What happens if the supercommittee fails? What would that mean for FDA, USDA, and CDC?

The short answer: automatic, across the board cuts.

Last week, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, sent an 11-page letter to the supercommittee, formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, warning that there could be disastrous consequences for public health — and defense, security, economic competitiveness — if the panel fails to achieve its mission.

“Failure is not an option,” writes Dicks. “I don’t need to rehash the bleak prospects for our nation if Congress can’t agree on a balanced, long-term deficit reduction plan.”

If there is no agreement, $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction will come from automatic, government-wide cuts.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, if auto-sequestration kicks in, discretionary spending will take a major hit in Fiscal Year 2013. Defense would take an across the board 10 percent cut. Non-defense spending would take a 7.8 percent cut.

In his letter to the supercommittee, Dicks points to food safety as an area of concern.

“The safety of our food would be put at risk. Sequestration would reduce the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) funding by nearly $200 million below the 2011 level. This would lead to fewer FDA staff including those who inspect our domestic and imported foods,” he writes. “It would also lead to a sharp reduction in the number of samples of food and medical products coming into our country from overseas.”

“FDA would be unable to implement recent legislation to improve the food safety system,” he adds.

The situation would be similar for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Sequestration would set FSIS’ budget back to the pre-2008 level, even though the demand for domestic meat inspection is growing.

“This would result in furloughs or shortages in federal inspectors at slaughter and processing plants. Since plants cannot operate without inspectors, the plants would have to operate fewer hours or close their doors. This will hurt plants, local economies, and workers, producers and consumers, as prices rise,” notes the letter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an indispensable part of the food safety system, is in the same boat. According to Dicks’ analysis, CDC would take a $440 million hit.