Mpls. USDA Office Among 259 to Be Closed

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that its plan to shutter 259 offices in the United States and seven foreign offices will cut annual costs by about $150 million.

In an effort to streamline operations and cut costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Monday announced plans to shutter 259 offices throughout the country, including a food safety district office in Minneapolis.

The USDA will close 259 offices, facilities, and labs in the United States, as well as seven foreign offices. The downsizing is possible because some offices have very small staffs and are located in close proximity to other USDA offices, while technology improvements have reduced the need for some other physical offices, the USDA said.

When the plan is fully implemented, the USDA expects it to cut costs by about $150 million annually.

“The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. We must build on the record accomplishments of farm communities in 2011 with a stronger, more effective USDA in 2012 and beyond.”

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), some of the planned office closures-like the one in Minneapolis-came as a surprise, and they have also raised concerns about the possible effect on food safety.

For example, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association told the AP that while cost-cutting is important, “we have to make sure we have the process in place to keep food safe.”

Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in Minneapolis, told the AP that the USDA “wiped out the entire Midwest.” His district office is one of five that will be closed, leaving 10 FSIS district offices nationally. Others to be closed include those in Madison, Wisconsin and Lawrence, Kansas.

The Minneapolis office currently handles all federal inspections of meat, poultry, and egg products in Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. The FSIS offices in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa will remain open, but it's unclear whether operations from the closed offices will be transferred to them, according to the AP. Lorenz reportedly said that about 16 people work in his office, and he expects roughly 12 to 14 of the positions to be eliminated.

Along with the FSIS, other affected departments include agricultural research, rural development, and the Farm Service Agency.

In addition to the office closures, the USDA is implementing other measures to eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies, including the consolidation of cell phone plans within the agency and the standardization of civil rights training and purchases of cyber security products.

To read the AP's report on the USDA's restructuring plans, which includes comments from farmers and economists, click here.