(Updates with timeline of closings, Vilsack comment and offices affected starting in second paragraph.)
Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture plan to close 259 domestic offices as part of a $150 million budget-cutting measure will have “no impact whatsoever” on food safety, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Agency inspectors will continue their jobs at every meat- processing plant in the country, Vilsack said today on a conference call with reporters. Closings of facilities related to food safety may not happen until after Oct. 1 and will only affect administrative personnel, he said. County offices that oversee farm programs may close before then, he said.
“We have to get our fiscal house in order,” Vilsack said. “That’s going to involve tough calls.”
The closings are in response to about $3 billion in cuts to the USDA’s operating budget since 2010, Vilsack said. Further economy measures will be considered as Congress begins debate this year on the next farm bill, where subsidies to growers of wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton are on the table, said Vilsack, who anticipates at least $23 billion in reductions in farm spending over 10 years.
The plan announced yesterday includes closing 131 of the 2,100 Farm Service Agency offices in 32 states. In addition, 15 of the more than 575 U.S. offices of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will be shut. The agency is responsible for inspecting about 6,200 slaughter, food-processing and import establishments throughout the country.
Research facilities and rural-development offices will be affected, and seven USDA offices overseas will be shuttered. Total savings will amount to about 1 percent of the department’s annual spending.
Vilsack said he does not envision “significant disruptions to service.”
The closings will harm farmers and ranchers, Chandler Goule, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, the second- largest U.S. farmer group, said in an e-mailed statement. The Washington-based organization blames Congress, not the USDA, for the cuts.
“A ‘cut first, ask questions later’ attitude in Congress toward investing in agriculture and rural America is now showing its true cost to farmers, ranchers and rural citizens,” Goule said.
--Editors: Daniel Enoch, Millie Munshi.
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