No risk to consumers or reduction in inspectors
DES MOINES, Iowa – The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Monday it will close nearly 260 offices nationwide, a move that won praise for cutting costs but raised concerns about the possible effect on food safety.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the goal was to save $150 million a year in the agency’s $145 billion budget. About $90 million had already been saved by reducing travel and supplies, and the closures were expected to save another $60 million, he said.
The plan calls for 259 offices, labs and other facilities to be closed, affecting the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states. Seven foreign offices also will be shut.
Some of the closures had been previously announced. The USDA said last year it would shut down 10 agricultural research stations, including the only one in Alaska, where scientists were seeking ways to use the vast waste generated by the largest wild fishery in the nation to make everything from gel caps for pills to fish meal for livestock feed.
Other parts of the announcement were a surprise. Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for the Food Safety and Inspection Service in Minneapolis, learned his office would be closed, along with those in Madison, Wis., and Lawrence, Kan.
“They wiped out the entire Midwest,” said Lorenz, whose office handles all federal inspections of meat, poultry and egg products in Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.
FSIS offices in Chicago and Des Moines will remain open. It was not immediately clear whether work from the other offices would be shifted to them.
Lorenz said about 16 people work in his office, and he expected 12 to 14 of their jobs to be eliminated. A USDA spokeswoman said employees would be given the opportunity to transfer to other offices whenever possible.
Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety, said the closures would affect management and support staff as FSIS offices are consolidated from 15 to 10, but that there wouldn’t be a reduction in inspectors or inspection work.
“There will be no reduction in inspection presence at slaughter and processing facilities and no risk for consumers,” Hagen said.
“Not only do we have a statutory obligation to be in every facility, we have an unwavering commitment to food safety,” she added. “We will still be on the job, in every facility, every day.”
Vilsack said he didn’t anticipate widespread layoffs, in part because 7,000 USDA employees took early retirements over the past year.
The USDA manages a wide array of programs, from emergency aid for farmers to grants for rural development and food assistance programs for the poor. Along with the Agricultural Research and Food Safety and Inspection services, six other departments will be affected by closures, including the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development.
Vilsack said public hearings will be held in counties where Farm Service Agency offices are to be closed. That department handles disaster assistance, farm loans and crop subsidies, among other programs. The USDA plans to shut 131 FSA offices in 32 states, with largest number of closures in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
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