Congressional sequester threatens food safety, farming industry

Saturday, March 2, 2013 - 3:21am

There are still lots of questions about when the cuts ordered by Congress' sequester will take effect and how they will be applied. But there is no doubt that everyone will feel their impact.

Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain believes Washington's inaction is going to either take food off our tables or money out of our wallets.

"In the agricultural sector," Strain said Friday, "our main concern is what will happen if we do not have an orderly furlough, with a backup plan on food inspection."

Louisiana has both state and federal food inspectors. But the state inspectors are paid with a one-to-one matching program from the federal government. Sequestration means mandatory furloughs for federal employees, which means the people who keep our food safe will have to take time off the job.

"But we will not sacrifice safety. Period," Strain promised. "I mean, that's not an option."

Animal products have the strictest inspections, but all food is checked, including items that are imported into Louisiana.

Strain's challenge will be organizing the two-week furloughs of his inspectors. But those furloughs have to be the result of cooperation between the government and the labor unions. Not even the White House knows when that will get done.

"And we talked about, well, what is going to happen, what is the plan," Strain said of a recent meeting with officials from Washington. "And we're not quite sure what the plan is yet."

Strain said he wants to make sure he can stagger the furloughs. Because if every inspector is forced to take the same two weeks off, the entire food supply will grind to a halt.

"There will be no uninspected food, period," Strain stated. "If that plant doesn't operate, then the product will back up in the system. And if you look at the estimates of the cost to the American farmer, it's between $4-10 billion."

But do not expect that nightmare to become a reality.

"I am committed to making sure that we find the money to keep our plants open with our state inspectors," Strain said. "If there's a disruption in the inspection system, and there's a disruption in the entire chain that brings that product to you, you're gonna see less availability and higher price."

Many of the department's other activities also operate in conjunction with the federal government, such as conservation, pesticides, and even fighting wildfires.

But Strain said he is used to this kind of thing.

"My budget has been cut almost 25 percent since I've been here and we've downsized by over 30 percent," he claimed.

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