Will Closing 259 USDA Offices Affect Food Safety?

With $3 billion slashed from its operating budget since 2010, the USDA has announced it will close 259 offices beginning this year—including FSIS sites in Lawrence, Kan., Minneapolis, Minn., and Madison, Wis., along with 15 of the nearly 600 U.S. offices of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack pledges that the closings will not have any impact on food safety.

“The office closings … are administrative personnel, not inspectors. We took a look at process improvement to speed up the work that we do.”

—Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

“The office closings announced yesterday in the food safety area are administrative personnel, not inspectors,” Vilsack said in a Jan. 10 conference call with reporters. “We took a look at process improvement to speed up the work that we do. It’s very important to point out that all the work at USDA will continue to be done.”

What do some leading food safety experts have to say about that claim? Most are fairly sanguine about the closures.

“Food safety is the responsibility of whoever produces, processes, or sells food. Inspections can hold people accountable but are never enough. And inspectors inspect, not offices,” noted Doug Powell, PhD, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

“Obviously, the current framework of USDA offices has evolved over many, many years through congressional legislation, and this appears to be an attempt at reducing USDA expenditures while at the same time prioritizing government research and services to better serve clientele (consumers, farmers, food and forest industries, and consumer groups),” observed Purdue University professor of food science Kevin Keener, PhD, who also pointed out, “At this point, these are proposed changes, and Congress has not weighed in on the proposal.”

“The devil is in the details,” warned Robert Buchanan, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park. “If [it is] done correctly, and if they take advantage of modern communication technologies, it shouldn’t be a problem. The issue will be what Congress does when they get the specific locations that will be impacted and they then protest about the closures in their specific districts. “

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