Food Safety Inspectors Escape the Line of Fire — For Now
By Colin Woodall, NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs
Last week Congress passed what is known as a continuing resolution, a type of appropriations legislation which will keep the federal government operating through the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30. The continuing resolution funds government agencies if a formal appropriations bill has not been signed into law, and takes the form of a joint resolution, providing funding for existing federal programs at current, reduced or expanded levels.
An amendment included in the continuing resolution, authored by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), shifts $55 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds in order to prevent furloughing Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) employees. As I am sure you are aware, there was a very real threat that food safety inspectors would be furloughed due to sequestration cuts. Such a move would have essentially halted food production, due to the fact that all meat, poultry and egg products produced here in the United States or imported must be inspected by a federal food safety inspector and that service must be paid for by the federal government. Without the inspection, no product can be sold or shipped interstate. This would have resulted in a backlog of animals, shortened supply of beef to market, higher prices and harm to the futures markets.
Now that the furlough of food safety inspectors has been prevented, problem solved, right? Not exactly. Just like the continuing resolution passed by Congress expires on Sept. 30, so does the funding for FSIS employees, leaving our industry in the same boat it was in prior to the passage of this amendment. This is only a temporary fix, even though food safety inspectors are federally mandated to continue their work under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. There is a very real concern that the lack of action taken by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in making sure that inspectors continue their jobs without interruption will again occur, and that we will again see another congressional hearing in which Vilsack and members of Congress go back and forth as to who is to blame for this issue.
Before the topic of furloughs came up in February of this year, USDA had months to prepare for spending reductions that would take place during sequestration, which began in March. During that time, the Secretary never requested funding flexibility from congressional appropriators to avoid furloughing crucial employees like food safety inspectors. Funding was requested for expenses associated with data collection and processing for the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and flexibility to transfer funds between Farm Service Agency and Rural Development to supplement the availability of home loans, among other requests. Though these priorities are important, a similar request should have been placed in order to prevent the harmful consequences of furloughing food safety inspectors. Instead the issue quickly became a political football, with the players being FSIS employees, livestock and poultry producers and consumers.
Congress must take action to preserve federal meat inspection and prevent any further disruption in Fiscal Year 2014 by asking Secretary Vilsack to revise USDA budgets in order to operate under sequestration without jeopardizing our industry. While it appears that sequestration is here to stay, NCBA urges Congress to recognize the vital service of these government employees to the food supply and our customers here in the U.S. and abroad, and we also urge USDA to realize the importance of keeping food safety inspectors on the front lines, not in the line of fire.