Scare tactics

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As Republicans make rather feeble attempts to get the government’s huge budget problems under control (with zero help from Democrats), the left is trotting out the same tried and true memes the children, the poor, the elderly will be hardest hit by the changes.

Over at Mother Jones, (demonstrating that I’m far more well-read than a certain Nobel Prize-winning hack) reporter Suzy Khimm warns that proposed budget cuts to the USDA’s food safety program will make you sick and old people will die.

Would you like some salmonella with those budget cuts? If Republicans have their way, food safety could fall casualty to the congressional budget-cutting fervor. Buried in the House GOP’s budget bill, which passed last month and would axe $61 billion in spending, are major funding reductions for agricultural inspections. And consumer advocates warn that these cuts could escalate outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

The House budget bill slashes $88 million from the agency that inspects the country’s meat and poultry, which could reduce its operations by 18 percent for the remainder of the year. The cuts to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service could furlough thousands of inspectors and decrease the number of inspections at the nation’s slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants.

Year # of recalls Weight of recalled food recovered USDA Food Safety Budget
2010 43 818,138 $1.028 billion
2009 69 3,642,733 $981 million
2008 54 55,166,379 $940 million
2007 58 49,855,285 $826 billion
2006 34 892,761 $838 Billion

A cursory look at the numbers for the most recent years would appear to lend some credence to the argument that increased spending has drastically improved food safety. However, in 2008 a single recall (Hallmark/Westland Beef Products) was responsible for 51,751,580 of the more than 55 million pound total for the year. Remove that one incident and 2008 is smaller than the following year. Similarly, 2007 had 3 recalls that accounted for more than 10 million pounds each (two of approximately 17 million and the third over 10 million). Remove those, and again the numbers by weight appear rather steady.

Looking at nothing more than the number of recalls, there doesn’t appear to a correlation between funding levels and the number of recalls made.

Interestingly, the $88 million number is what the GOP has been promising—a return to pre-stimulus, pre-emergency 2008 spending levels.

Based upon the available evidence, I think it’s difficult to make a case that cutting $88 million from the USDA’s food safety budget will cause more people to die or get sick from foodborne illness. It overlooks the simple fact that getting people sick is a sure way to end up out of business.

A few notes for the record:

  • The USDA did not start keeping track of the weight of recalled food recovered until part way through 2005.
  • Not all recalls were because of tainted food. Food was also recalled for mislabeled or incomplete ingredient lists.

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