Sequestration challenges food safety, USDA services

02/14/2013 04:26:00 PM
Tom Karst

With automatic cuts to the federal budget expected to kick in March 1, President Obama has warned food safety inspections could take an immediate hit.

Obama and Republican leaders in Congress are at odds on how to cut the deficit, and political observers said there is little hope to avoid the automatic cuts, which are expected to total $85 billion across the federal budget. The cuts are expected to reduce domestic programs by 5.1% and defense programs by 8%.

“It is going to trigger, that much is clear,” Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C. “What is unclear is how long it will take to agree on something that will untrigger it.”

In a White House fact sheet released in mid-February, the Obama administration said if sequester takes effect March 1, up to 2,100 fewer food inspections on domestic and foreign food facilities could occur.

“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,” according to the White House document.

While food stamps will be exempted from cuts, the White House said that about 600,000 women and children would be dropped from the Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) from March through September.

Hoefner said the crisis could hopefully be resolved by Democratic and Republican leaders by the end of March, when another continuing budget resolution must be passed. “Everybody seems like they are frozen in space and time and no one wants to do the negotiation.’

With the sequester cuts enacted, Hoefner said the FDA will likely have no way to increase funding levels for food inspections for the two to three years.

Industry leaders were alarmed about the expected cuts.

“Significant cuts to improve the country’s fiscal condition are bound to have impacts on programs and services,” Kathy Means, vice president for government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said in an e-mail.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited with United Fresh Produce Association officials Feb. 12 and said there would likely be a disruption in services because of the sequestration, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh. Vilsack didn’t specifically detail the effect of the cutbacks on the produce industry, but Gilmer said there are serious concerns about disruption services and possible bottlenecks in trade.

“Any kind of reduction in the inspection standards would be a critical concern for the industry,” he said. Gilmer said Feb. 14.

Gilmer said the farm bill is on the back burner as Congress deals with budgetary issues.

“Lawmakers want to know the resources at their disposal before they authorize a new bill,” he said.

As it stands now, Hoefner said sequestration will cut about $7 billion out the farm bill over 10 years, entirely from the commodity and conservation programs. Crop insurance won’t be hurt by the cuts, the Obama administration has indicated.

The budget crisis could put the possibility of passing a five-year farm bill in doubt this year, with the farm bill extended on a year-to-year basis instead.

“This could be one small step at a time, and I think the one small step at a time during a period of deficit reduction will be one slice and dice at a time,” Hoefner said.

“With the extension scenarios, you are essentially losing money with every extension,” said Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm. “It is vastly preferable to create a five year contract with American agriculture through a completed bill.”



Comments (8) Leave a comment 

Name
e-Mail (required)
Location

Comment:

characters left

Ted Schultze    
MN  |  February, 15, 2013 at 08:55 AM

Please, some one explain to me why it will be terrible for our country to start spending within it's means. Please. From my understanding, even with the sequestration, we'll still be running a deficit. So, we'll either need to raise taxes even more or reduce spending. Am I correct?

    
February, 15, 2013 at 09:46 AM

The first thing that should be cut is WELFARE......

anonymous    
February, 15, 2013 at 09:46 AM

USDA has the flexibility to provide essential services with the right management decisions. The Administration is putting forth the potential negatives to bolster the case for getting the budget impasse resolved which is to be expected. However, this level of lower spending levels can be absorbed with prudent management.

Matt    
Michigan  |  February, 15, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Unfortunately the President and the Republicans are playing a game of "chicken", and everyone knows that chicken can be one of the most unsafe foods (and games to play!) Sticking to principles is commendable, but sticking to them at the expense of common sense is quite another! You have to love our politicians!

Brian    
portland  |  February, 15, 2013 at 06:12 PM

Even easier, welfare abroad...foreign aid.

Chris    
Candler NC  |  February, 19, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Cutting welfare will bring a porportional increase in robbery, methinks. The increase in robbery will increase the police and jail costs. It's never ending circle of financial ruin continues unabated. Welfare is a thinking problem, not a money problem. We all need to change the way we think about the unfortunate.

Chris    
Texas  |  February, 20, 2013 at 09:06 AM

This is just political extortion by the president. To hear him warn against an 85 billion cut to a 3.5 trillion budget, you'd think that the whole country's survival depended on this infinitesimal reduction.

Mike    
Florida  |  February, 22, 2013 at 04:30 PM

All this is garbage is just that. This is 2% of our budget. My payroll taxes went up 2% and I lost that money and I am surviing. Not happy but surviving. If 2% of a budget cut affects this many people it is a lie. If they are they are targeted for political purposes. Why doesn't obama take it out on his and her staff and other federal employees sitting doing nothing in DC. Let it come, and quit blaming republicans for the cuts. this was Obama and the dems idea to staret with, if it were important they should ahve been doing something a year and a half ago. They wait until the last minute and blame others. Put the blame back where it stands, Obama and his inability to keep spending money we don have and neither will our grandkids. Welcome to the american socialist republic!

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight