Budget Cuts at the Risk of Food Safety?

moneyThe recent obsession with cutting budget deficits has food safety advocates justifiably concerned. It seems that these quick cost reductions come at a much higher price.

Center for American Progress fellow Scott Lilly puts it well when he describes the irony of House Republicans' targeted budget cuts for "nonsecurity discretionary programs" that actually "reduce our security in a variety of ways." Among them is an  $88 million cut to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) budget, which passed in a temporary spending bill signed by the President last Wednesday.

Whether it's implementing furloughs or not replacing retired employees, USDA's response to budget cuts will heavily impact inspectors. What does that mean for U.S. meat and poultry production? Good question. It's already a demanding job to monitor our food supply under current conditions, and the new cuts will undoubtedly put more burden on inspectors, which is bad news for food workers and, ultimately, the public. It certainly doesn't help that USDA workers lack whistleblower rights.

Even statewide, threats to food integrity are underway with proposed budget cuts. With attacks against workers' rights across the Midwest, and even a governor's plan to shift milk inspection responsibility to the dairy industry -- who even admits it's the government's job to inspect, not themselves -- it becomes clear how moneysaving agendas can get out of hand and put our food system at risk.

On another note, certain budget cuts may eliminate programs that USDA workers (and would-be whistleblowers) know to be corrupt. High Country News writes:

As reported by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Administration is proposing big cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program, among others. It may be just a coincidence, but these three are precisely the Farm Bill Conservation Programs which have experienced the greatest incidence of Inspector General verified waste, fraud and abuse.

HCN also highlights the experience of Tony Valvo, an employee with the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) which administers Farm Bill conservation programs, who tried to expose the abuse of government funds but faced retaliation in doing so.

Valvo alleges that conservation payments were made to agribusiness companies without verification by NRCS employees that the conservation measures had actually been implemented. Valvo had repeatedly asked local superiors to address the issues to no avail. When local supervisors found out about his complaint, he was placed on administrative leave.

Though whistleblowers like Valvo struggle to bring their issues to light, perhaps it is these concerns that have led the Obama administration to suggest agency cuts. But while these reductions may offer some reform, other budget cuts in agriculture and food oversight move away from the proper oversight that we need.

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.


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