Despite the importance of FSIS's food safety mission, these closures have generated little objection from industry or its critics. There appear to be two principal reasons for this silence. First, much of U.S. food production is not regulated by FSIS. FSIS oversees only meat, poultry, and processed egg product plants. All other food processors are inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and, therefore, are unaffected by restructuring at FSIS.
Second, meat packers, poultry processors, and food safety advocates have not challenged Secretary Vilsack's statements that the closures will affect only "administration" and not "inspection." A typical plant already has an everyday, on-site FSIS inspector at the plant who has two levels of supervisors (a supervisory veterinarian medical officer, who reports to a front line supervisor) between him and the FSIS district office. Thus, consolidation of functions at four-level distance from the plant should have little impact on day-to-day operations.
A Precursor of Bigger Reorganization to Come?
The current emphasis on cost-cutting and deficit reduction should result in USDA's office closures being put into effect. Other recent developments indicate that the same budget pressures may force a much more significant reorganization of federal food safety agencies, and that USDA's closure of FSIS offices may be only a first step.
The possibility of major reorganization was raised on March 2, 2011, in the General Accountability Office report that proposed consolidating USDA's FSIS with FDA (in the Department of Health and Human Services) and 15 other agencies with food safety functions, to form a unified food safety agency. This proposal has recently been revived.
In January 2012, the Obama Administration asked Congress for authority to consolidate federal agencies in order to create efficiencies and save costs. It stated that its first effort would be to combine six business and trade-related agencies. White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials stated that consolidation of FSIS, FDA, and other food safety agencies was second on their list. After some adverse comments from agriculture industry and consumer advocates, OMB modified this statement on January 26, 2012 by saying that it had not yet confirmed any proposals for agency consolidation beyond the initial combination of trade organizations, and that it would not do so until Congress has given President Obama the authority to consolidate agencies.
Reading these tea leaves, it appears that the FSIS-FDA consolidation has been seriously, and favorably, studied by OMB, but is "not confirmed." However, it may well take place if Congress grants the President authority to reorganize. If this dramatic reorganization advances, it will create a new order of food safety oversight in the U.S. and raise significant regulatory and budgetary issues. All interested parties should stay tuned.