Sequestration is one of the hottest topics in D.C. right now, but one consequence that has been largely overlooked is the impact that these budget cuts would have on our dinner tables and our health.
Sequestration's across-the-board approach to cuts would reduce the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service budget by 8.2 percent, or $86 million. According to a White House OMB report released in September 2012, the USDA's efforts to "inspect food processing plants and prevent foodborne illnesses would be curtailed" with this significant cut.
This is bad news for consumers. The food inspection program is our first line of defense against contaminated food.
Contaminated food is a real threat that puts millions in the hospital and kills hundreds of people each year. Just a week ago a Michigan retail store recalled ground beef products due to possible Salmonella contamination. And the week before that, there was an E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef in Wisconsin, which makes it the fifth time in eight months that ground beef has been recalled for possible E. coli contamination.
A recent CDC report estimates that the most common food sources of fatal infections are meat and poultry, mostly due to contamination with Salmonella and Listeria. Even with our current system of food inspections, a recent U.S. PIRG report found that illnesses due to food recalls are on the rise, with a 44 percent increase from 2011 to 2012, a sure sign that we cannot afford further cuts.
Smart public health and consumer protections such as food safety inspections should not be cut back under any circumstances. Fewer inspections and inspectors would doubtless mean that more unsafe meat and poultry would make it to our dinner tables. And that's an idea that no one finds appetizing.
Regardless of our budget problems, important public health safeguards like the food inspection program should never be the first place to make cuts. That's especially true when we're still giving billions of tax dollars in wasteful subsidies to Big Ag every year, and when big corporations are still avoiding billions in taxes by taking advantage of loopholes and tax havens.
Consumer safety should not be a political question or a partisan issue -- instead, Congress should keep our food safety programs strong and put protecting Americans first.