The US Department of Agriculture believes that their budget will tighten. In a letter, USDA head Tom Vilsack tells all employees that “we will have to continue our path of belt tightening.” He indicates that the House’s budget, which keeps defense spending constant, will force cuts on the other discretionary non-defense agencies like USDA, which is absolutely true. And he specifically cites the “Blueprint for Stronger Service” as a path forward to provide the same services and resources with less funds:

As I have said on many occasions, the budget challenges we face are unprecedented. It is part of the reason why we must build an improved USDA through cultural transformation and our work to improve administrative services as part of the Blueprint for Stronger Service. I am proud of our efforts to date in keeping down travel, supplies, and conference expenses. While the work to find administrative efficiencies and office consolidations required difficult decisions, they allow us to hopefully keep ahead of the process and allow us some freedom to decide how best to deal with cuts. I encourage all of us to aggressively proceed with the Blueprint for Stronger Service effort. It will make the department more efficient and, over time, more effective. I will continue to keep you advised as the budget discussions unfold.

I don’t think the following cost-saving measure falls inside the “Blueprint for Stronger Service” portfolio, because it certainly wouldn’t provide stronger service of any kind:

Poultry inspectors, union representatives and a few men in chicken costumes on Monday protested the U.S. Agriculture Department’s proposed changes to the poultry inspection process.

USDA wants to expand a pilot program that replaces some federal poultry inspectors with inspectors employed by the processing plants themselves.

The program has been in place at 20 chicken and five turkey slaughterhouses in the Southwest and Southeastern United States since the late 1990s. USDA now wants to expand the program to include about 200 facilities.

Tell you what, why don’t we just eliminate all the food inspectors, and let the companies self-report? Surely, self-reporting leads to a high level of quality control, no?

Set aside for a second the 1,000 poultry inspector jobs that would be lost if this program were expanded. How many lives would be lost if the poultry companies self-report – and presumably overlook deficiencies in their processes? Under the pilot program, one federal inspector gets to sit at the end of the line and look at up to 80 carcasses out of hundreds of thousands in a typical day’s haul. And those federal inspectors are accredited and have the proper training to find spoiled poultry. Heck, the public rationale for this change is that it would be faster. What does speed have to do with properly inspecting food for disease? (Somehow, USDA also claims that the move will prevent more than 5,000 food-borne illnesses a year, which uses inscrutable logic.)

One retired poultry inspector described this allegedly “better” process of self-inspection:

Phillys Mckelvey, a retired USDA poultry inspector who worked on the first pilot project in Guntersville, Ala., said she believes companies involved in the pilot did their best. The plant in Guntersville required specific training for its inspectors, but she is concerned training may not be kept up if the pilot becomes policy.

“If this goes nationwide, it’s going to be a total nightmare,” she told Government Executive at Monday’s protest.

When Mckelvey began her career 44 years ago as an inspector’s helper, inspectors “looked inside every bird, inside and outside, from every side,” she said. “All they do on the pilot is they sit and watch the birds go flying by.”

Is this really the type of program that we need to sacrifice in the name of sound budgeting? Do we really need to let poultry companies police themselves, or end lead poisoning prevention programs, so rich people can keep a tax cut?

UPDATE: Daily Kos has a petition up opposing this USDA change. There’s a public comment period until April 26.