(Aug. 12, 3:35 p.m.) Greater use of remote training, reduced staff levels and shuttering of a handful of offices all remain part of the ongoing restructuring of destination inspection services at the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Fresh Products Branch, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency.

In phone calls and e-mail communications in late July, AMS officials said the restructuring process that began in April this year will take another six or seven months to complete. To trim costs by about $5 million per year and regain financial footing for the user-fee funded program, the agency plans to reduce the number of fruit and vegetable inspectors in 22 of the 36 federal offices. AMS officials say the cuts are required to forestall eventual termination of the destination inspection service because user fees have not kept pace with expenses.

USDA spokesman Jimmie Turner staff at seven offices have been reduced as of late July, including the now-closed Salt Lake City office. Four more of the 22 offices slated for staff reductions (El Paso, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Pittsburgh) are scheduled to close.

Turner said 13 field positions have been trimmed by retirement and resignations; a total of 37 positions are targeted. Meanwhile, Turner said that three federal inspection offices need additional inspectors, and he said the USDA would like to fill those positions by relocating staff from offices facing reductions.

The cost-saving plan calls for cutting staff at headquarters in Washington, D.C., by 14 positions. As of July 30, Turner said five positions at headquarters had been trimmed.

Leanne Skelton, chief of the AMS Fresh Products Branch, said for fiscal year 2009 — which begins Oct. 1 — refresher training for inspectors will be done on-line instead of at a Fredericksburg, Va., training center, saving travel and lodging costs.

Plan change unlikely

Bruce Summers, assistant deputy administrator of fruit and vegetable programs at the AMS, said most of the changes will occur in March and April of 2009. Summers said a new presidential administration isn’t likely to change plans.

“We expect that something like this, based on hard numbers and good logic, will keep moving,” Summers said.

Skelton said the AMS is seeking to develop joint contracts with industry members in areas slated to close. The alternative, she said, would be to offer those services in more distant locations, Skelton said.

“What we would like to see is the location served on the same level as they are now, in terms of responsiveness,” she said.

Summers said the industry understands the USDA’s need to cut costs.

“To a certain extent, what we are doing here happens every day in the private sector. Most feedback has been positive,” he said. “The industry is interested in the program. They need it and want it to be run well.”