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The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Jan. 9 that it would close five of its 15 district offices, as part of a consolidation that would decrease the agency’s budget and save taxpayer dollars. This financially prudent move prompted the following statement by Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager of the agency’s office in Minneapolis, one of the five offices to be closed: “They wiped out the entire Midwest.”

That was his quote in an Associated Press article on Jan. 10.

Such a statement resonates with some folks, who question if closure of these five offices could adversely impact food safety imperatives. Such fears should be dispelled.

About 20 years ago, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service had a district office in Billings with authority over Montana plants, including mine. This office was eliminated, with duties consolidated into the Minneapolis district office. This consolidation had no adverse impact on the ability of Montana plants to produce safe food. This latest FSIS consolidation will likewise not adversely impact food safety or public health.

One of the 10 remaining district offices is in Denver. The states of Montana and Wyoming are much closer to Denver than they are to Minneapolis. When the Minneapolis office is closed, Minnesota plants can be more efficiently covered by the remaining office in Des Moines, Iowa, than the Minneapolis office could ever have covered plants in Montana or Wyoming. But this issue should not be decided primarily by physical juxtaposition of district offices to meat establishments. Rather, the primary focus of consolidation should be on FSIS’ actual physical presence and inspection of production at every meat establishment.

5 levels of inspection

For example, let’s examine my plant, which I sold in 2005, and is still in full-time production. There are five levels of agency oversight at this plant:

1. The in-plant inspector, who is there every day.

2. The inspector’s supervisor, a supervisory veterinarian medical officer (SVMO), who lives 3-1/2 hours away and comes to this plant every three weeks or so. Whenever the plant kills an animal with potentially questionable health conditions, the SVMO must inspect it.

3. The SVMO’s supervisor, who lives two hours away, and comes to the plant once a year or so.

4. The deputy manager of the Minneapolis district office. I don’t believe Andrew Lorenz has ever visited our local plant.

5. The manager of the Minneapolis District Office. I don’t remember my plant ever being visited by any manager of the Minneapolis District Office.

Therefore, when the Minneapolis district office closes, all of the hands-on inspection at this plant will remain as is, with no interruption, as levels 1-3 will remain intact. The only change will be that levels 4 and 5 (which are not involved in inspecting meat in the least) will be moved from Minneapolis to another existing district office, which I presume will be Denver.

Eliminate redundancy

The bottom line is simply that we taxpayers are paying for a redundancy of levels 4 and 5 across this country, as well as the expenses of running district offices, including space rent, utilities, phones, etc. Reducing the number of district offices from 15 to 10 will have zero impact on meat inspection, but will eliminate layers of costly and duplicative bureaucratic waste.

I heartily congratulate USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen and Administrator Al Almanza for the foresight and courage to tackle wasteful government spending, and design FSIS reorganization that will still protect public health while being a better steward of taxpayer dollars. Corporations are forced into such painful decisions when economic reality dictates change. Government entities must likewise appropriately respond. We are fortunate that in this case, FSIS can accomplish sizable budget reductions without jeopardizing public health or safe food goals. These top three officials deserve our support!

And contrary to self-serving statements of some, the entire Midwest is not being wiped out, nor is any other segment of America.

John W. Munsell of Miles City manages the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE), website