January 10/Washington/CIDRAP News -- The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to close five of its 15 district Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offices to save money and boost efficiency, a move that officials said will not impair meat and poultry plant inspections.

The five district offices in five states are among 259 USDA offices targeted for closure under the "Blueprint for Stronger Service," which was detailed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The plan is expected to save about $150 million annually, the agency said.

Also targeted for closure are 15 of 560 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) offices in 11 states and 12 of 240 Agricultural Research Service programs.

"The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago," Vilsack said in a press release. "We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers' dollars."

Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety, said the FSIS closures will not affect the number of meat and poultry inspectors or inspections at slaughterhouses and processing plants, according to an Associated Press (AP) story. "We will still be in every facility, every day," she said.

The FSIS offices marked for closing are in Lawrence, Kan.; Beltsville, Md.; Minneapolis; Albany, N.Y.; and Madison, Wis. The closures will be carried out in phases and completed by the end of fiscal year 2013, the agency release said.

Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager at the FSIS office in Minneapolis, told the AP, "They wiped out the entire Midwest," referring to the planned closures in Minnesota, Kansas, and Wisconsin. The Minneapolis office covers Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana, the story said.

FSIS offices in Chicago and Des Moines will remain open, according to the AP.

Vilsack said he did not expect widespread layoffs, partly because many USDA employees took early retirement over the past year, the AP reported. The USDA release said some of the targeted offices are no longer staffed or have only one or two people, and many are within 20 miles of other USDA offices. "In other cases, technology improvements, advanced service centers, and broadband service have reduced some need for brick and mortar facilities," it said.

Echoing Hagen's comment, Chris Waldrop, a food safety policy expert at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, DC, said it's his understanding that the FSIS does not plan to eliminate any inspection jobs. On the basis of what USDA officials said in a conference call, he said, "It's more closing the physical offices than eliminating jobs, and it s my understanding it won't have a big impact on the actual work of food safety." He said he was told that staff members in the affected district offices will be offered jobs in other districts.

Waldrop commented that many of the records on meat and poultry processing plants are maintained at FSIS district offices. "So when these districts are being closed, it's going to be important to make sure that the information is transferred to the new districts [that take over the work]," he said.

Dr. Richard Raymond, who was USDA under secretary for food safety from 2005 to 2008, voiced support for the FSIS cutbacks, according to a report in Food Safety News. "I would have liked to have done this, but had no political pressure . . . to do it," he said. "This gives [FSIS administrator] Al Almanza and Dr. Elisabeth Hagen the ability to select and keep in position their top 10 district managers. Everyone knows a couple that need to be relieved of their duties."

The USDA identified the 15 APHIS offices targeted for closing as those in Tempe, Ariz.; Moss Landing, Calif.; Gainesville and Ft. Myers, Fla.; Forest Park, Ga.; Indianapolis and West Lafayette, Ind.; Baton Rouge, La.; Annapolis and Jessup, Md.; Gulfport, Miss.; Bowling Green, Ohio; Salem, Ore.; and San Saba and Olney, Tex.

Also, APHIS offices in five other countries will be closed: Yangon, Myanmar; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Bogota, Colombia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Vientiane, Laos.

More than 560 domestic APHIS offices and 55 in other countries will remain open, the USDA said. Following the closures, veterinarians will continue to take samples and inspect animals, but they may report to supervisors in consolidated offices in adjacent states, the agency said.

The USDA also cited a number of department-wide steps it is taking as part of the efficiency campaign, including consolidating more than 700 cell phone plans into about 10, standardizing civil rights training and purchases of cyber security products, and moving toward "more centralized civil rights, human resource, procurement, and property management functions."

 From the January 11, 2012, Prepared Foods' Daily News.