In an age of deficit reduction, USDA's budget is sure to pinch

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 8, 2012 -Agency officials and constituent groups are braced for more belt-tightening when President Obama's budget for USDA is made public Monday. Although clues are few, it's reasonable to infer from remarks by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that the cuts will not be popular.

Plans to close 266 offices - part of his “Blueprint for Stronger Service” - are an example of the cuts to be expected, although the idea faces criticism in Congress and many rural communities. He told the American Farm Bureau Federation in January that “tough choices and tough calls” were required by a 12% cut of more than $3 billion in discretionary spending since 2010.

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He noted that the steepest cuts were in personnel costs at the Farm Service Agency, the Rural Development mission area, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service. Cuts ran to 18% in departmental management and staff offices of the chief economist and general counsel.

An example of how such cuts affect programs was described last week at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association convention in Nashville by APHIS Deputy Administrator John Clifford. His veterinary service program has sustained cuts of about $53 million and about 200 people (out of 1,800). For all practical purposes, he said, federal spending on Johne's disease and chronic wasting disease is limited to coordination with states. Cuts such as those invite pushback from interest groups. “It's tough,” he said. “We've really got to fine tune.”

A speech by Vilsack to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture this week suggested that the National Agricultural Statistics Service could be pinched further. He's quoted as saying that nine regional centers will take over some of the work of state statisticians' offices beginning next year. More cuts in minor commodity reports could be in the offing too.

It would be surprising if the administration did not make another attempt to shift some of the cost of meat and poultry inspection from appropriated funds to “user fees.” Similar proposals have failed in Congress in the past.

Any such idea surely would raise the same objections that a coalition of more than 30 food trade associations lodged against “any new food taxes or regulatory fees on consumers and food makers” to finance expanded food safety authority by the Food and Drug Administration.

In a preemptory letter to the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Health and Human Services, the coalition said, “Federal food safety programs and inspections conducted by FDA benefit all American consumers and should be funded through appropriated funds,” adding that the rationale applies to USDA food inspection too.


Original story printed in February 8, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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