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USDA closures draw ire, applause

In a move lauded by some and slammed by others, USDA announced this week the forthcoming closure of more than 250 USDA offices around the country and the "workforce decrease" of more than 7,000 employees.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday the move's an effort to "streamline services," adding the offices closing are essentially redundant in their services for farmers because of geographic proximity to other offices. Of the 259 offices closing, 131 are from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and of those, 35 were previously unstaffed. The rest, he says, are within 20 miles of another FSA office "capable of handling farmer and rancher clients," according to a report from the American Farm Bureau Federation, at whose annual meeting Vilsack made the announcement Monday.

On Tuesday, the ag chief was quick to defend the office closures as only part of a set of steps to improve USDA's service through more efficiency.

"It's clear that farmers and ranchers need our service. We opted to be proactive and give the least disruption to the people who matter most," Vilsack told reporters Tuesday. "We took a look at process improvement to speed up the work that we do. It's very important to point out that all the work at USDA will continue to be done."

The net effect of the office closures, at least where it concerns the federal budget, will be a savings of $150 million each year, Vilsack says. The current USDA budget is around $145 billion per year. The budgetary results of the closures have been lauded by industry groups and supporters of a leaner overall federal budget.

But, the effects on food safety are less appealing, as many see the closures as making food safety protection vulnerable. The closures include Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) laboratories in Lawrence, Kansas, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Madison, Wisconsin, while FSIS labs in Des Moines, Iowa and Chicago, Illinois, will remain open. Vilsack insists, though, the FSIS ralignment is administrative and won't affect the agency's food safety oversight.

"The office closings announced yesterday in the food safety area are administrative personnel, not inspectors," he said. "We still will be in every single plant. This will have no impact whatsoever on our ability to ensure food safety in the U.S."

Officials also said Monday they expect many of the 7,000 USDA employees on the chopping block to either find other positions within the agency or take early retirement.

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