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Say it ain’t so, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary – OMB Watch Say “USDA Budget Leaves Food Safety Agency Wanting”

According to OMB Watch:

When Congress finalized on Thursday the Department of Agriculture’s FY 2010 budget, it fulfilled President Obama’s request to give a modest funding boost to the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Unfortunately, it appears the agency will be unable to close the gap in its inspection force responsible for policing the nation’s supply of meat and poultry.

Funding and staff size are critical issues for FSIS. At no other regulatory agency does the size of the inspectorate need to be so closely aligned to the size of the industry it regulates. Under federal law, FSIS must inspect and approve all meat and poultry products before they can be sold – it’s the agency responsible for the USDA stamp of approval.

Population growth means increased nationwide demand for food, including meat and poultry. In 2003, FSIS inspected and approved over 96.4 billion pounds of meat and poultry. By 2008, the figure had risen to almost 110 billion pounds – a 3.5 percent average annual increase.

Over the years, FSIS’s budget has steadily increased, but its staffing levels have held steady or dropped. The FY 2010 budget continues that pattern: The budget gives FSIS about a 4.5 percent funding boost (not adjusted for inflation) but only calls for 25 new full-time employees – less than a one percent increase.

We cannot tell whether the 25 new employees will serve as inspectors or be employed elsewhere at the agency. Regardless, FSIS has room to absorb a lot more inspectors. In June 2007 (the last time I saw figures on the subject) the agency had a vacancy rate of 12.2 percent in its inspection force. As a result, the inspectors FSIS does employ are spread too thinly, and oversight of slaughterhouses and other facilities is insufficient.

According to Obama’s budget request, the agency will not significantly increase its inspection and enforcement activity. The budget predicts no change in the number of food samples analyzed or the number of corrective actions dictated by the agency, for example.

FSIS’s budget stands in stark contrast to the FDA’s. Obama has called for big budget increases for the other major food safety regulator, and Congress appears prepared to oblige.

(Part of the problem may be that, unlike FDA, FSIS is still without a Senate-confirmed head. More than eight months into his administration, Obama has yet to nominate someone to serve as the USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, the official who leads FSIS).

Resource constraints aren’t the only problem for FSIS, but the agency needs a commitment from President Obama and Congress that they will appropriate enough funds to allow the agency to fulfill its mission.