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.”