Impending across-the-board budget cuts could mean fewer government food safety inspections and higher prices for meat at the grocery store according to a White House memo. “The public could suffer more food-borne 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,” the memo read.
The federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, would mean 2,100 fewer food facility inspections by the Food and Drug Administration, “putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production.” The cuts are set to take effect on March 1.
While the USDA oversees meat safety and is required to have a constant presence at meatpacking plants, the FDA conducts infrequent inspections at manufacturing facilities for most other foods. A reduced number of FDA inspections would mean less vigilance overall and could have an impact on public health, advocates say.
Department of Agriculture inspectors could be also furloughed for up to 15 days, meaning meatpacking plants would have to intermittently shut down and there could be less meat in grocery stores. This would result in about $10 billion in losses for the more than 6,200 plants affected.
Meatpacking industry officials immediately responded to the USDA furlough threat, saying it would devastate the industry. Agency officials add that meat industry workers risk losing more than $400 million in personal wages while consumers could face limited meat and poultry supplies and a possible price increase as a result of shortages.
On Monday a coalition of 38 organizations representing various livestock and poultry producers, food processing and manufacturing, and retail wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to express their strong concerns with the possibility of furloughing the nation’s federal inspectors if sequestration goes into effect.
The White House and congressional Democrats are hoping to find a way to avert the cuts, while some congressional Republicans have signaled that they will not oppose them.