Government cutbacks cause concern

by Bernard Shire
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While the Presidential election won’t take place for another nine months, from the amount of newspaper space and airtime the campaign is occupying, voters might think Election Day is tomorrow. The Republican candidates have been castigating each other more than they are criticizing President Obama. And because the country is still mired in a recession, both Republicans and Democrats are crowing about how much government spending they are cutting back in order to shrink the size of the federal government and save taxpayers money.

While tax cutting has been pretty much a Republican practice, with Democrats generally moving in the other direction, President Obama has decided to make some headlines by cutting government spending in his administration. Maybe he’s getting tired of being called a “socialist” by the Republicans. Curiously, he’s picked on the US Dept. of Agriculture to absorb a lot of these spending cuts. He and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced the closure of 259 domestic USDA offices, labs and other facilities in 46 states, as part of an effort to “save” $150 million a year, an infinitesimally tiny slice of USDA’s annual budget of $145 billion for 2012. Vilsack disclosed this last month at a meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Hawaii.

These “savings” will come from shutting down a number of Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, which serve farmers across the country on a daily basis; shutting a number of Food Stamp offices; cutbacks to the Agriculture Research Service, and slicing seven other USDA agencies, including Rural Development and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. As part of this effort, USDA also plans to consolidate a number of cell phone plans in the department. The FSIS budget for the coming year is estimated at a little over $1 billion, a slight cutback from the current year.

But the main cutbacks at FSIS, which are being proposed rather quietly, would close a number of FSIS district offices, which control the inspection of meat and poultry products in USDA-regulated plants across the country. Under the Obama plan, the number of district offices would be reduced from 15 to 10. The FSIS offices to be closed include Albany, NY; Beltsville, Md.; Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Lawrence, Kan. This is the first major change to FSIS’ structure in more than 15 years, according to Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Undersecretary for Food Safety, and Al Almanza, FSIS Administrator, who spoke with the employees who will be affected by the consolidation. “We will do everything we can to limit the impact on our employees and their families, including offering all permanent employees an option to move to another location, as well as exploring telework possibilities for affected employees,” Almanza said.

But the real question is how this consolidation will affect the day-to-day work of USDA in the poultry and meat plants. The FSIS district offices, and the district managers who head those offices, supervise the work of FSIS “frontline” supervisors, who are the midlevel supervisors out in the field, and who supervise the FSIS meat and poultry inspectors. How that will change with the reduction in district offices from 15 to 10 is hard to figure at this point. The frontline supervisors could have much larger areas to cover, and many more inspectors to supervise. If meat or poultry plants are having problems with their inspectors or inspection itself, it could take a lot longer for frontline supervisors to get to the plant and provide help.

There is also a lot of talk in Washington that this change in the structure of FSIS could be the precursor to something that’s been discussed here for a long time – the merger of a number of federal agencies involved in food safety into one. The Obama Administration continues to push for such a merger, and Congress’ Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could begin by giving Obama the authority to merge six business-oriented agencies. This could be followed by a consolidation of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with the food regulatory function at the Food and Drug Administration. Obama Administration officials are said to favor this merger, removing food safety from USDA and putting it in the Health and Human Services Dept. because it would make food safety independent of USDA, which these officials feel primarily exists to market and promote US farm products.

Looking at the cutbacks at FSIS, they seem a little strange. Considering the importance the Obama Administration attaches to food safety, as well as efforts to improve it with increased meat and poultry inspection, the wholesale cutback of one-third of the main FSIS offices that control meat and poultry inspection, to save not all that much money, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But mixing politics into the mix, maybe the proposal isn’t so strange. Especially if President Obama wants to convince the 2012 electorate he’s trying to save taxpayer money by cutting government spending, just like the Republican candidates say they want to.

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