U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack still argues that some USDA meat inspection will need to shut down if Congress does not act to prevent sequestration by March 1. Earlier this month, several livestock organizations including NCBA and the American Meat Institute (AMI) challenged Vilsack’s announcement that severe budget cuts would require the agency to temporarily furlough meat inspectors from some plants. The plants cannot legally ship meat without federal inspection, so the move would in effect close those plants, with widespread economic impacts.

Ag groups argue that federal meat inspectors are essential personnel, and that USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would need to find other areas from which to cut expenses. Several statements implied the Secretary and the Obama Administration were simply using the issue for political leverage to pressure Congress into reaching a budget agreement before the March deadline.

 Last week, AMI president J. Patrick Boyle sent President Obama a letter stating the meat industry’s concerns. Boyle says USDA inspectors have historically been deemed "essential" personnel, and the Office of Management and Budget has deemed essential those employees whose "activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials.

"It is incumbent upon the Secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspection services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act," Boyle wrote.

Vilsack, however, responded with a letter maintaining that USDA has done all it can to find cuts elsewhere and to minimize the furloughs, but they will be necessary.

In anticipation of sequestration, Vilsack says, “the FSIS Administrator directed the initial fiscal year 2013 budget allocations to be reduced across program areas-making cuts in travel, training, conferences and other operating expenses-and continued to limit hiring of non-front line staff. These proactive cost-saving initiatives enabled the Agency to decrease the potential number of furlough days required to meet the sequestration target by almost half. However,” he adds, “were sequestration to become a reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone as your letter suggests.”

The Secretary also maintains that meat inspectors’ status as essential personnel does not exempt them from furloughs in this case. “You are correct in your assertion that FSIS' governing statute imposes an obligation on the Department to

provide inspection,” he writes. “However, our view of those authorities is that they allow for furloughs in order to comply with budget and fiscal laws enacted by Congress. Unlike other budget scenarios, such as a short-term government shutdown, the exemption provisions of the sequestration statutes do not include exceptions that would be applicable to FSIS inspection activities.”

The letter Vilsack sent to Boyle is available online.