Cutting Costs and Courting Contamination: What Food Safety Budget Cuts Mean for Public Safety

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the federal regulator of meat, poultry, and egg products, faces resource limitations that make it more difficult for the agency to ensure the safety of the food supply. New plans to cut costs could have severe consequences for public health and safety.

Although the FSIS budget had seen a fairly steady increase since the agency was created, over the past two years, funding has fallen and its budget and staffing levels have failed to keep up with increases in food production. As a result, the number of meat, poultry, and egg product recalls has increased.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created FSIS in 1981. Federal law requires the agency to monitor the slaughter, processing, and labeling of all meat and poultry and to inspect meat, poultry, and egg products to ensure products are not contaminated. The agency is responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the billions of pounds of meat, poultry, and egg products that enter the market each year.

President Obama’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2013 seeks about $8 million less than FSIS received in 2012. This cut comes after two consecutive years of funding decreases for the agency.

Budget Increases Fail to Keep Pace with Size of Mandate

Since FSIS began operations, meat and poultry consumption in the U.S. has increased sharply. Between 1981 and 2011, the amount of meat and poultry inspected and approved by the agency more than doubled – from about 52 billion pounds in 1981 to about 107 billion pounds in 2011. Much of the increase is due to the expanding U.S. poultry market: pounds of poultry approved by FSIS nearly quadrupled during that time.

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Even though FSIS's overall budget has, on average, increased over time, its staff and resources have been dwarfed by the expansion of the meat and poultry industry. Of its appropriated funds, in FY 1981, FSIS spent $14.74 per thousand pounds of meat and poultry inspected and passed, when adjusted for inflation. By FY 2011, the figure had fallen to $9.36 per thousand pounds – a drop of more than 35 percent.

FSIS’s workforce has contracted even more. FSIS employed about 190 workers per billion pounds of meat and poultry inspected and passed in FY 1981. In FY 2011, FSIS employed 88 workers per billion pounds, a 54 percent decrease.

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Where's the Inspector?

The falling ratio of inspectors to meat and poultry examined is concerning, since much of this work still relies on visual inspection by experienced examiners. A new USDA cost-cutting proposal should also set off alarm bells.

In January, FSIS published a controversial new proposal that would shift responsibility for poultry inspections away from agency inspectors to employees of the slaughter and processing plants. Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), cited this proposed change as a reform that will save industry and FSIS money without increasing public health risks. We feel the true costs and risks have not been fully explored.

Under the proposed new system, FSIS inspectors will no longer visually inspect every poultry carcass. Instead, processing plant employees will perform the visual inspections and a smaller number of inspectors will randomly test for bacteria. FSIS estimates that it will save between $85 million and $95 million over the next three years by laying off 1,000 inspectors. However, the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office (GAO)), reporting in 2001 on a pilot project of this kind of “self-regulation,” wrote that independent, follow-up inspections at the program’s processing plants showed that “most of the inspection systems at these plants did not meet the safety standard for the presence of fecal material, which could contain harmful bacteria such as E. coli.”

Poultry companies estimate that they will save approximately $250 million because they will be able to significantly speed up their production lines. Workers in poultry plants already suffer an alarming rate of injuries and illnesses due to the cold temperatures in which they work, the sharp tools used on the line, dangerous machinery, and the repetitive nature of their jobs. Work in these plants is already among the most dangerous in the country, and turnover is high. For consumers, the consequences of reducing the number of inspectors could be also be dire.

Recalls on the Rise

Recalls of the products FSIS is supposed to inspect have increased in recent years. Keeping unsafe products off the market and away from consumers is much more cost-effective for industry and our public health system than resorting to recalls of tainted meat, poultry, or egg products.

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After a record 123 recalls were announced in 2002, the rate dropped for several years, with fewer than fifty meat, poultry, and egg recalls in 2006. Unfortunately, the number of recalls is again on the rise. In 2011, 103 recalls were announced, the most since 2002.

The number of persons infected with Salmonella is also increasing. According to the CDC, the rate of Salmonella infection in the U.S. remained steady from 1996 to 2006 but has increased by 15 percent since then. In 2010, the incidence of confirmed Salmonella infections per 100,000 people was the highest on record for the years CDC has reported data.

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And in 2011, a deadly outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Cargill Meat Solutions recalled approximately 36 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground turkey products linked to the Salmonella infections. The outbreak lasted for seven months and infected a total of 136 persons in 34 states.

Congress has failed to make the investments in our food inspection infrastructure that are required to ensure food safety. We need to restore and enhance FSIS's capacity to protect American families by shoring up the agency's funding levels to allow it to fulfill its responsibility to keep our food supply safe.

Image in teaser by flickr user USDAgov, used under a Creative Commons license.

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