By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

No matter what your political leanings, you probably find  it painful to watch Washington squirming under the budget ‘sequester,’ which will dramatically cut spending across the board starting on March 1.

The sequester would kick off what is set to be $85 billion in budget cuts for 2013 (and ultimately  $1.2 trillion over time). It was designed last year as a blunt, back-up way to cut federal spending if Congress could not. Lawmakers then and now have been unable to agree on more targeted cuts, and so the sequester looms.

Marathon Man

Is it safe to cut a lot of food inspectors all at once? The heads of the USDA and HHS say no.

Sequester budget cuts would affect virtually all government spending — except Social Security recipients will still get their checks — including defense, energy, medical, education, nutrition and agriculture programs. It would even trim money for air traffic controllers, one immediate scary outcome that’s rattled across the headlines.

If the thought of air traffic controllers working too many hours makes you queasy,  you may not want to ponder about another area where sudden cuts will likely make the world a little more dangerous: The loss of food inspectors.

Last week, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reported that the USDA’s $2 billion loss of funding could force a one-third reduction in food inspectors.

The Food and Drug Administration, the other wing of government that stands sentinel over the food supply, also would suffer significant cuts, at a time when many believe the FDA already needs more inspectors. Studies have shown that food inspections already are declining relative to the growing number of food production facilities.

Food Inspection

Meat inspections would decline dramatically as USDA cut staff under the sequester budget cuts. (Photo:

These [FDA] cuts “may increase the risk of safety incidents, and the public may suffer more food borne illnesses such as the recent salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E.coli illnesses linked to organic spinach,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote in answer to a Congressional query about the sequester’s effects.

To draw attention to this pending blow to food safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) publisher of the popular Nutrition Action Newsletter, issued this droll headline on Tuesday:

Sequester Bad News for Eaters, Says CSPI .

Their point: Many budget cuts will affect many of us, or some of us, or a few of us. But a teetering food inspection system assigns us all to a national game of food roulette. This wasn’t what they meant by Grand Bargain.

Here’s the CSPI statement, which contains interesting word choices like “gravely” and “dying”:

Anyone who eats should be gravely concerned about across the board budget cuts that will happen if Congress fails to repeal the sequester.  This self-inflicted crisis would force the Food and Drug Administration to forgo 2,100 domestic and foreign food inspections, even as the agency is trying to implement new food safety rules. With fewer inspections, FDA won’t be able to stop problems at food plants until people start getting sick—or start dying.

The sequester means gutting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety program by about $50 million.  That means less food reaching consumers, higher prices, and an increased likelihood that the safety of our meat and poultry may be compromised.  The sequester is likely to cost meat and poultry producers more than $10 billion in losses.

The ill-considered sequestration now looming is anti-business, anti-family, anti-consumer, and threatens the safety of our food supply.  The White House and Congress should get rid of it.

Is it safe to cut these inspectors? We don’t know. The heads of the departments that oversee food safety don’t think so, but what do they know? They’re always going to say no to cuts.

On the other hand, these particular cuts could make us bleed.

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