On Tuesday morning, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appeared before the House Committee on Agriculture to testify about the impact of the sequester’s across-the-board cuts on food safety inspections. The mechanism — which went into effect after lawmakers failed to reach a deficit reduction deal that would offset its $1.2 trillion in spending cuts — will lower funding for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service by $56 million, cut $53 million from Food Safety and Inspection Service, and take an additional $2 million from Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.
In his testimony, Vilsack stressed the consequences of the cuts. “No matter how you slice it and dice it, there’s nothing you can do without impacting front line inspectors,” he said. “The inspections are very, very important and we will do everything we can to minimize the disruption, but I have to be truthful to this committee that based on the way the sequester is structured, it will impact food inspection.”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) — the chairman of the committee — dismissed these concerns, arguing that Vilsack would have the “flexibility” to ensure that at least some inspectors remain on duty:
LUCAS: But you will, Mr. Secretary, utilize the maximum flexibility you have. You have substantial inspectors in plants all over the country, plants that work on different hour schedules. The odds that we would furlough every inspector on the same day are rather minuscule, correct?
Vilsack responded that he may not have the ability exert a great deal of flexibility since “some facilities are actually dendent on the work of other facilities” and the Department is required to “bargain with the union that represents the inspectors in terms of the sequencing a structure of the sequester and how it is implemented.” “It is extraordinarily complicated,” Vilsack stressed.
U.S. food safety standards are already far weaker than regulations in other developed countries. For instance, “48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses every year” — while the entire European Union had only “45,000 illnesses and 32 deaths from contaminated food in 2008.” That means foodborne illness strikes 15 percent of Americans each year, but only .00009 percent of Europeans.
Unfortunately, Lucas seems far more concerned with opposing increases in revenue than preserving food inspections. Last month, he correctly predicted that the House will not accept the Senate’s bill to replace the sequester because it “has tax increases.” “We say the problem is not that the federal government doesn’t tax enough, which is what the President and Harry Reid say, we say, quitem simply, we spend too much, and we’ve got to reduce spending. That’s how we fix the problem in the big picture sense,” he told a local Oklahoma radio station.