Public health groups reacted warily to President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, which proposed discretionary cuts to both the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control, two critical parts of the food safety system.

The FY 2013 request seeks $996 million for FSIS, which is about $8 million below the level the agency was given for by Congress FY 2012. The proposal would also reduce discretionary funding at CDC by $660 million to $11.2 billion. Though the plan would be a significant overall cut, the Health and Human Services budget document says foodborne illness surveillance and other food safety safety activities would see a $16.7 million boost over Fy 2012 under the plan.

“This increase will enable CDC to move forward implementation of CDC’s provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), including enhancing and integrating surveillance systems, upgrading the PulseNet system, improving outbreak detection and response timeliness, improving timeliness in responding to state and local partners through the FoodCORE program, attributing illnesses to specific food commodity groups to aid in prevention efforts, monitoring food safety prevention measure effectiveness, and supporting the FSMA’s Integrated Food Safety Centers of Excellence,” according to the department. “These investments will help restore state and local capacity to monitor foodborne illness and respond to outbreaks.”

Some consumer advocates are concerned about the proposed cut to FSIS, especially in light of last year’s cuts. FSIS argues that it will save around $12.9 million if the new proposed poultry inspection rule were implemented.

“Under this proposed budget, FSIS will take a cut in appropriations for the second year in a row,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a group that has been ardently opposed to the new poultry rule, known as HIMP, or HACCP Inspection Models Project. The rule would basically move poultry inspectors down the line so they are primarily focused on looking at fecal contamination instead of quality defects. 

Food & Water Watch questioned the administration’s assumption that the project would save money, when the plan is in its early stages, “this controversial scheme to shift poultry inspection responsibilities to company employees is still in the proposed-rule stage and the public comment period is still open.”

“FSIS has never fully evaluated a pilot program testing this type of inspection program,” said Hauter. “It is irresponsible for the administration to proceed with the implementation of this privatized inspection system until all the facts are collected about whether it can achieve the same level of consumer protection as traditional inspection.”

Food & Water Watch recently presented USDA with an 8,000 person petition against “privatizing” poultry inspection.
Carol Tucker-Foreman, the distinguished food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, who formerly served as an assistant secretary at USDA, says she’s concerned about the FSIS budget proposal as well.

“I think the FSIS cut may well have an adverse impact on public health and food safety,” said Foreman. “When they started on HIMP, FSIS insisted it was not designed to save money.   I think they testified in federal court that that wasn’t the goal.  Now that is the stated goal. USDA has no outside independent study that backs up its claims for HIMP.  GAO was extremely ctitical of the program before.  FSIS says it has fixed the problems but there’s nothing from GAO and OIG or any other independent body that backs that up.  In addition,  HIMP has always been a pilot conducted in a few choice plants, no one knows what the impact will be when it is expanded nationwide in a wide range of actual plant conditions.”

“Under HIMP, companies will increase line speeds,” added Foreman. “We don’t know if staff and inspectors can meet those speeds dayafter day without an increase in contamination. Plant employees and inspectors may not be able to keep up.”

FSIS argues that HIMP will make poultry safer and will save government resources — resources that are now being spent in part to help poultry companies with quality control.

“There’s very few food safety defects, and a whole lot of food quality defects,” said Phil Derfler, deputy administrator at FSIS last month. “Basically what we’re saying is that our inspectors looking at quality are doing the work of the plant. In this budgetary environment, it just doesn’t make sense for government employees to do that kind of work.”

“We believe that the proposed rule will have a number of significant effects… it’s going to better align our employees with the work that they should be doing, they’re going to be focused on food safety, they’re not going to be doing the quality work for the plant,” said Derfler. “The number of FSIS inspectors is going to go down. We’re going to be eliminating, over a period of time, which we think we can handle with attrition, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 jobs.”