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Sequester May Increase Risk of Food Contamination, FDA Commissioner Says

Update Date: Mar 01, 2013 01:59 PM EST

The effects of the looming sequestration in Washington, which goes into effect today, may not be felt for some time. However, there is one place where it will certainly be felt in American households: the kitchen table. The Food and Drug Administration says that, as a result of a lack of a new 2013 budget and across-the-board spending cuts, the FDA will need to conduct fewer safety inspections. Those inspections will mean a greater risk of infection to the American consumer, as well as the possibility of less meat in grocery stores and higher food prices overall.

According to CBS News, the FDA, which inspects 80 percent of the food in American households, says that the sequester could mean as many as 2,100 fewer food safety inspections this year, though the commissioner of the agency, Margaret Hamburg, said to the Associated Press that number was an estimate. Most of the effects may not be felt for a prolonged period of time and, fortunately, the agency will not place workers on temporary leave.

However, the agency is hurriedly trying to devise ways to save money as the budget cuts loom. The FDA is experimenting with performing safety inspections in less time, for example. The FDA also hopes that the food industry can jump on board to the idea of inspection fees. Previously, the industry has refused that notion.

The cuts will also affect inspection of meat, which is carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture. The department states that, unlike the FDA, they may furlough employees for up to 15 days at a time.

If inspectors are furloughed for 15-day stretches, that will affect the amount of time that meatpacking plants can be open. Meatpacking plants cannot operate without an inspector present.

The result may be that food costs will go up and fewer meat will end up in stores.

The cuts will come at a bad time for the food inspection agencies. According to Reuters, the sequester will mean a delay of the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The act, which was signed into law, was supposed to allow the FDA to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks, instead of just react to them, and was the largest food safety reform in 70 years.

According to The Daily Beast, 3,000 people die annually and 130,000 people are hospitalized due to food-borne illnesses, like from infections like Salmonella, listeria and E. coli.

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