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Food and Drug Administration won't reduce food inspections despite budget cuts

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By USA Today
Sunday, May 5, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

The Food and Drug Administration will not reduce food inspections because of budget cuts, despite warning that it could be forced to eliminate thousands of inspections by Sept. 30.

“Our goal is to absorb the cuts without a risk to public health. We are working to manage the budget reductions through other mechanisms,” FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said.

Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told USA Today last month that the agency feared it could be forced to cut as many as 2,100 inspections — 18 percent of the annual total — because of the mandated budget reductions known as the sequestration. The agency has been working to decrease the needed cuts for months, she said. FDA oversees food safety for almost everything but meat and poultry.

“The commissioner was clearly working off a worst-case scenario,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “It's certainly a relief to hear that that scenario will likely not take place.”

The numbers shifted so drastically because FDA reconfigured its budget to avoid cutting inspections, focusing instead on decreasing travel and training, said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods. Just figuring out where the agency stood took time, he said. “These sound like simple questions, but in the budget world of the federal government they're not.”

The FDA was helped by an infusion of $40 million to fund the Food Safety Modernization Act, the 2011 act hailed as the most comprehensive food-safety law in generations. Food safety advocates fear that sequestration will delay implementation of the law.

“Congress and the administration recognized the importance of food safety and realized they needed to make an exception” for it, said Chris Waldrop, director of the food policy institute at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.

Exactly how the budget will play out is still being worked out. Overall, the FDA came out “better off in 2013 than we were in 2012” in terms of the Food Safety Modernization Act but “eroded a little bit” when it comes to food safety, Taylor said. “It's not like there's no effect, but it's not like we're going to turn off one big chunk of program and stop doing things.”

“We're comforted” that food safety won't be hit as hard as it originally seemed it would, said Louis Finkel of the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. “Ensuring the safety of the food supply for the public is a crucial government function. We were very grateful that Congress saw fit to put additional resources” into it.

The FDA will need more money in the future to hire the necessary inspectors and technicians to meet the requirements of the new law, said Erik Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C. “But in a sequester year, we feel good about 2013” in terms of funding, he said.

The Agriculture Department's Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees all meat and poultry slaughterhouses and packing plants, dodged the sequester bullet entirely.

The agency was supposed to get hit with $52.8 million in cuts. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety, said on March 13 that the cuts would require shutting down meatpacking and slaughter plants one day a week until the end of September, reducing meat production by 20(PERCENT).

Faced with that prospect, Congress voted on March 22 to give the USDA $55 million to keep inspectors on the job.

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