Slashing Safety? USDA Plans to Close 259 Offices

The move is a cost-cutting measure, but opponents argue it will endanger our food supply.

closed sign on door
Who's going to mind the store? The USDA plans to close 259 offices, labs and other facilities. (Photo: Jennifer M. Ramos/Getty Images)
Nichol Nelson has worked in national digital and print publications in both New York and Los Angeles.

On the heels of 2011, a year packed with foodborne illness outbreaks, you might expect the federal government to beef up its inspections and consumer protection. Instead, yesterday the U.S. Agriculture Department announced plans to close nearly 260 offices, reports the Associated Press.

The motive for the closures? Money, of course. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack estimates the agency will save approximately $60 million a year by reducing its presence in certain regions. (The agency's budget is $145 billion annually.) But the closings have some people worried.

There was a spate of foodborne illness in 2011: Salmonella-infected Cargill ground turkey sickened 136 people in February; E-coli on Romaine lettuce made 60 people ill in October; Cantaloupe infected with Listeria monocytogenes killed 31 people and sickened 146 in December. And those are just the splashy cases. Foodborne illness costs $77.7 billion in the United States annually, according to a new study published in the Journal of Food Protection. Suddenly, that $60 million savings doesn’t sound so hot.

Agency officials contend there’s no safety risk to the closures. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, told the AP that the agency had no plans to cut inspections.

"There will be no reduction in inspection presence at slaughter and processing facilities and no risk for consumers," Hagen told the AP. "Not only do we have a statutory obligation to be in every facility, we have an unwavering commitment to food safety," she added.

The USDA oversees more than just food safety—the agency is in charge of everything from nutrition assistance to wildfire prevention. But only six departments are affected by the closures, including the Agricultural Research and Food Safety and Inspection services.

Vilsack says the agency had no choice. "Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service," he told the AP.

Overworked and underfunded—that’s the food safety agency of the world’s richest country. Time to hit the farmers' market and find a purveyor you trust.

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