Will the Sequester Hit the Snooze On Food Safety?

Welcome to sequestration! Friday, March 1 came and went with no Congressional agreement on taxes and entitlement spending. So here’s your quick guide on how those immediate, deep, across-the-board budget cuts will greatly impact food, water and energy programs (among many others).

First off, bear in mind that the sequester was not meant to serve as a deficit reduction or budgetary tool in and of itself. Rather, the breadth and depth of the cuts to programs near and dear to both political parties and most Americans was intended as a failsafe to keep everyone at the negotiating table to hammer out long-term agreements on taxes and overall spending. In short, the sequester aims to achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. (See this Mother Jones overview which explains the math in greater detail.)For fiscal year 2013 (through the end of September) that means $85 billion in cuts, evenly divided between defense and domestic spending. On the domestic side, there are two big chunks of cuts: one to Medicare and the other to everything else. For this fiscal year, an equal amount was slated to be cut from every budget account, with no priority assigned. Some of the cuts will be felt disproportionately by more vulnerable populations which depend on already tight federal funding. But make no mistake, sequestration affects every area of government spending, just as intended. Assuming this is our new reality, Congress will have more say on how cuts are applied in future fiscal years through their appropriations process. For the next seven months, however, we’re stuck with automatic amounts.

Let’s take an issue-by-issue look at some programs and policies likely to feel impacts.

Food

In terms of food issues, the biggest effects of the sequester will fall on two areas: hunger programs and food safety and inspection processes. Over 600,000 eligible low-income women and children (including infants) will not be able to receive WIC supplemental nutrition benefits this year, including food and baby formula.

On the food safety side, the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s budget will be cut by $51 million. This will probably trigger a 15-day furlough for workers, including 8,400 meat inspectors. Assuming meat that is produced will not be inspected and approved for legal sale, we’re looking at two billion pounds of meat, between 2.8 and 3.3 billion pounds of poultry and over 200 million pounds of egg products that would have to be destroyed.(Sounds like there will be quite a bit of food waste, then.) As Tom Vilsack cautioned Senator Barbara Mikulski in a letter outlining the impacts of the impending sequester upon the USDA, “public food safety could be compromised by the illegal selling and distribution of uninspected meat, poultry and egg products.” How comforting!

Water

Here, the sequester will mainly be felt in delayed or reduced water pollution control, inspection and sewage treatment upgrades. See here for examples in Virginia; according to the White House, similar cuts are on deck for every state.

Energy

The oil and gas industry may be – literally – the only stakeholder not hurt by sequestration. They’ll get to hang on to their subsidies amidst less robust monitoring of offshore drilling. That said, permit issuance for further oil and gas drilling development on federal lands will slow, so there will be some negative impacts for the industry. Environmental impact statements will slow down and leases for new projects will be delayed. (After all, with less money comes fewer people to keep paperwork moving.)

What’s Next?

The real question is, what happens next? We barely cleared the fiscal cliff in January and seem no closer to a productive climate for political negotiation. Later this month, Congress has to approve legislation that will continue to fund the federal government. If they don’t, we’re looking at the possibility of a federal government shutdown (remember 1995?) and an even bigger functional problem than sequestration. As of Sunday, leaders from both parties claimed a shutdown was unlikely. For some, the question of whether our government (hello, Congress!) is functional at this point is fueling quite the finger-pointing around Washington as this sequester was just plain never supposed to be allowed to happen. That it did is concerning, regardless of party affiliations. After all, our food and water safety are part of what’s explicitly on the table now.

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