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Food-safety inspections would be reduced if March 1 budget cuts go into effect

WASHINGTON — With Congress butting up against the March 1 deadline for automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, the White House warned Feb. 8 that progress on the new food-safety law would be cut back and the Food & Drug Administration would have to conduct 2,100 fewer food inspections.

Congress has until March 1 to act on a deficit plan or face $85 billion in government spending cuts under the Budget Control Act. President Obama has called on Congress to delay the cuts again so House Republicans and the White House can come to an agreement, but another delay appears unpopular with the GOP.

"Outbreaks of foodborne illness are a serious threat to families and public health," the White House said in a fact sheet listing scores of defense, health and other programs likely to be affected by the sequestration. "If a sequester takes effect, up to 2,100 fewer food inspections could occur, putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production."

"These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent Salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E. coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume," the White House warned.

Other government agencies are likely to feel the wrath. The Food Safety & Inspection Service would have to furlough all employees for two weeks, a move that would shut down meat and poultry plants.

"Since plants cannot operate without inspectors, thousands of establishments would be forced to shut down or operate fewer hours, costing the industry, grocery stores and restaurants billions of dollars," said a report released Feb. 13 by House Appropriations Committee Democrats.

The possibility of shutting down meat plants caused the American Meat Institute to fire off a Feb. 11 letter to President Obama, arguing that food inspectors are essential employees and should not be furloughed.

Another government agency involved in food safety, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's surveillance programs and probes into outbreaks could be affected, as well as U.S. Customs & Border Inspection staff.

CBP may need to reduce more than 7,000 officers and agents, which could jeopardize security between points of entry, the congressional report said.