The two week federal government shutdown that ended this past week highlighted the many important ways government agencies are intertwined with the agriculture and food sectors. While there always will be debate about what constitutes too much or too little government involvement, the shutdown of 2013 put into perspective what government efforts are important for the food and beverage industry to operate smoothly, transparently and efficiently.
Early on, one of the most notable losses during the shutdown was access to up-to-date information. Without data generated by the US Department of Agriculture and other agencies, purchasing executives were left partly in the dark, assessing pieces of the supply and demand picture based on information from industry sources and a network of state and other entities. What became clear for many executives is the value of the tremendous swaths of data the government produces and disseminates.
Several important reports from the USDA, including weekly Crop Progress and monthly Crop Production and the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, were not published, because the national infrastructure in place to gather and assemble production and harvest data ceased to function. The lack of fresh, reliable production, export and supply-and-demand information made it harder to market corn, soybeans and other commodities because accurate pricing requires the latest information.
The importance of the food safety agencies within the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also were highlighted during the government closure. Furloughed employees of the CDC were called back to work during the shutdown to assist in the investigation of Salmonella infections that were traced to products produced at three plants owned by a California poultry processor. More generally, while media reports indicated meat inspectors and other essential federal employees remained on the job, the interruption of routine plant inspections created a sense of confusion and uncertainty among the public over whether the food supply truly was safe.
It is imperative for the nation to have a robust federal food safety and public health infrastructure, because it is impossible to guarantee the safety of the food supply 100 per cent of the time. When food-borne illness outbreaks occur it is critical for public health authorities and the industry to react quickly. Investigation and coordination of outbreaks are central to the roles the food safety agencies within the federal government play, and it is an effort that significantly benefits the food sector by minimizing the damage a food safety incident may cause.
In South Dakota, an early blizzard wiped out much of the cattle herd in the region. State officials estimate losses may reach as high as 40,000 head, and the lack of government service has left many farmers as well as public officials scrambling to manage the clean-up after the disaster.
For ranchers seeking disaster relief, the shutdown left them with few options. Many are eligible for relief from the Farm Service Agency, but with department employees furloughed, ranchers are unable to get the instruction necessary to document their losses and eventually submit a claim.
The year has been tumultuous in Washington. On March 1, federal budget sequestration went into effect. As a result, government agencies were required to make across-the-board budget cuts in an effort to reach spending levels outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The budget cuts were not strategic in nature and forced many federal agencies to cut programs deemed expendable at the time.
The government shutdown has underscored the important roles the government plays in the day-to-day operations of food and beverage businesses. There are many government programs that benefit the food and beverage industry, and it is important those programs remain functioning.
The deal struck to end the shutdown is only a short-term answer. Early next year negotiators from both parties will convene to work on a grand bargain that will include spending reductions. The shutdown has made clear the programs that are important to food and beverage operators, and the industry must work to ensure those programs remain intact.