In the bizarro world of 21st politics, some may argue that a government shutdown may be a good, sobering slap for Washington, but is most certainly a bad thing for our food.
Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that during the shutdown the agency needs to focus on those functions that protect “life and property.” What that means in terms of jobs, farms, and food is outlined in an enormous report filed with the White House last Friday.
The report is pretty grim for the USDA’s nearly 100,000 employees, but it does provide the lowly consumer a window into massive bureaucracy managing our food supply. Below is what the USDA can and can’t do during the shutdown and what it means for farmers and consumers.
The USDA Can…
Provide food stamps and school lunches. Congress’s Recovery Act funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and through October. Programs assisting schools to provide lunches have similar funding. Expect more debate on these issue at the end of the month.
Inspect meat, dairy, eggs and food imports. The Food Safety and Inspection Service will keep 87 percent of its employees on the job, so food on the shelves should be A-OK. That doesn’t mean all is well in the world of food inspection. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration will maintain all inspections supported by fees, but warns that it might not have the resources to investigate violators.
Grade beef. Apparently, the “USDA Choice” and “USDA Select” stamps will keep flying. Beef, for the moment, is still what’s for dinner.
The USDA Can’t…
Help pregnant women or women with new children buy healthy food. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) doesn’t have funding to continue during the shutdown. The $6 billion dollar program buys healthy food for pregnant women or new mothers if they are poor or at risk of buying unhealthy food. The Huffington Post reports that states can step in for a few days, but if the shutdown goes on too long, mothers and kids could be turned away.
Keep in touch with consumers. In the event of a shutdown, the USDA will basically shutter its office of communications. The website will go dark, reporters won’t have anyone to contact, and all USDA publications and press releases will stop. So even if the agency can find a listeria outbreak, it’s won’t have all channels available to let you know about it.
Keep their databases open. This might not seem like a big deal, but for farmers, it’s huge. Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops.
Find foreign markets for American food. At the moment, this is more of a hypothetical. The U.S. Grain Council relies of funding from the USDA to maintain offices abroad. “Depending on the length of the shutdown, it could have impacts on USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Services program funding, which the Council relies on to develop global markets for U.S. agricultural products” said Floyd Gaibler, USGC director of trade policy and biotechnology, in a press release yesterday.
Force congress to pass a farm bill. Every few months it seems the House is going to pass the Senate’s farm bill and every few months they don’t. It a frustrating sequence we’ve covered over and over. The current shutdown has also distracted congress from passing the farm bill yet again, even as the current version expired last night.