Sequestration is an ugly specter that has been haunting us for months like a hoard of brain dead zombies.  No matter what is said about the dangers of sequestration or the noble but empty pronouncements by our elected officials, it just won’t die.  It just keeps slowly walking toward the federal check book threatening to devour everything in its path.

Jolley: Five minutes with sequestering the meat industryThe sequestration is scheduled for March 1, just two very short weeks away, and it requires automatic, across-the-board spending cuts if Congress can’t agree on a sensible budget. Even an insensible budget would stop the sequestration.  It was a plan agreed on during the overheated summer of 2011 when congressional Republicans and the White House were doing a ‘Gunfight at OK Corral’ thing over legislation to raise the debt limit. Negotiations finally led to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which traded a short term rise in the debt ceiling for deficit reduction measures totaling $2.4 trillion over a 10-year span.

Like most things coming out of Washington, the bill was riddled with holes.  It specifically identified only half the cuts and left the remaining $1.2 trillion to be determined by a so-called “Super Committee,” with its recommendations to be implemented by Jan. 1, 2013.

In other words, Republicans and the White House conspired to kick the can down the road, saddling a different group of politicians with the decisions that were surely vote losers.  Republicans and White House folks dusted off their jeans and washed their hands of the really hard and dirty work, appointing a Super Committee that fell far short of its name.

Here is the hook left in the bill: If the Super Committee failed to reach an agreement, and that was a foregone conclusion, the Budget Control act was written so that it would go out of control, requiring across-the-board spending reductions to be shared by defense and non-defense programs alike.Wisely covering their ample posteriors, though, our politicians exempted Social Security, Medicaid, federal retirement, military pay, and the price tag for ongoing wars.

To no one’s surprise, the Super Committee, consisting of equal parts Republicans and Democrats, tripped, stumbled and fell. A last second deal over the fiscal cliff delayed sequestration to March 1. As part of the deal, some of the Bush-era tax cuts were allowed to expire, reducing the amount required for sequestration to about $1 trillion over nine years.

Ahh, that grand old Washington saying, “A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you’re talking about serious money.”

Talking about the threatened shut down of meat inspection, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), said “I don’t know where that’s coming from, USDA will have latitude on cuts.”

Where it’s coming from is straight from the top. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that if Congress fails to avoid a sequester the department would have to furlough food safety inspectors for 15 days. 

“If a sequester takes effect, up to 2,100 fewer food inspections could occur, putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production,” the White House said.

It will have a devastating impact on our food supply. The U.S. meat industry may be forced to shut down according to Vilsack, who said spending cuts might keep meat and poultry inspectors out of manufacturing facilities for at least two weeks.

Here is what people are saying:

ABC News “The Note” blog: Take our naval vessels, our jet-engine programs and our Social Security checks–but do not lay hands on our meat.’

Scott George, newly elected President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: “While we are certain the USDA contains other ‘non-essential’ employees, the Secretary has chosen to announce the consequences of sequestration in terms of a furlough of FSIS inspectors, essentially threating to close down all production, processing and interstate distribution of meat.  This action has already cost cattle producers significant amounts of money with the downward slide in the futures markets caused by rampant speculation, with untold effect on producers through further regulatory uncertainty.”

J. Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute, in a letter to Secretary Vilsack. “We agree with the assessment that furloughing inspectors would have a profound, indeed devastating, effect on meat and poultry companies, their employees, and consumers, not to mention the producers who raise the cattle, hogs, lamb and poultry processed in those facilities.

“AMI respectfully disagrees with the department’s assertion in that, in the event of sequestration, the furloughs referenced are necessary and legal. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (the Acts) impose many obligations on the inspected industry, which we strive to meet. Those acts, also however, impose an obligation on the department – to provide inspection services.”  (To view the letter, click here).

A coalition of 37 animal ag groups wrote a letter agreeing with the AMI: "We recognize that sequestration presents significant challenges that require USDA and all other federal government agencies to make difficult decisions to prioritize resources. But cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government’s budget deficit. We urge USDA to examine all options available to meet its obligations under sequestration while upholding its commitment to ensuring that American consumers have access to the safe, wholesome and nutritious protein sources they have come to expect from the nation’s meat, poultry and egg products industries."

Helena Bottemiller, writing for Food Safety News: “The National Cattlemen’sBeef Association estimated that approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide would be severely impacted by a furlough, and that action could result in more than $10 billion in production losses.”

(Just so there is no doubt about the term ‘severely impacted,’ no inspection means no meat can be shipped. The impact will be the severest – total shutdown.)

Kevin Coupe, retail industry analyst and publisher of widely read “It won't just be meat costs and availability that will be affected. I was just reading a piece in the Washington Post saying that sequestration “would roll back border security, increase wait times at our nation’s land ports of entry and airports, affect aviation and maritime safety security, leave critical infrastructure vulnerable to attacks, hamper response time and weaken cybersecurity protections.”

“I was tending toward the optimistic; working on the assumption that sequestration would have just a negative impact on a fragile economy that our elected officials would never let it happen. But when you read commentators from either side of the aisle, you get the feeling that they're playing a game of chicken. Republicans think the White House will blink and take the blame if sequestration happens, while Democrats think that the GOP-led House of Representatives will back down for fear of taking the blame.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.