Finally. Somebody’s making some noise about the impact of the sequestration-driven budget cuts, and how they would affect meat and poultry industry producers and processors.
A threatened two-week layoff of federal meat inspectors is a “misguided way” to reduce federal spending and jeopardizes government’s duty to ensure a safe food supply, a key lawmaker said this week.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the furloughs might be unavoidable under automatic spending cuts if the sequester goes through on March 1. USDA officials have not said when those furloughs might occur, but said the department would give at least 30 days’ notice to employees. Vilsack is expected to testify before a House Agriculture Committee hearing on rural economic conditions next Tuesday, three days before the cuts would take effect.
Without federal inspectors, of course, the more than 6,200 U.S. meat and poultry plants would be forced to shut down, and losses could exceed an estimated $10 billion. Supermarkets might run out of meat, causing prices to soar.
That has House leadership worried that both the industry and consumers would suffer.
“I am concerned that your plan to furlough (meat) inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers,” Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, wrote in a letter to Vilsack.
Conaway asked for a detailed explanation of how the USDA would carry out budget cuts of about $2 billion and how the department would keep the meat production from being severely curtailed.
“Ranchers and farmers need you to manage these cuts in a way that protects them from as much harm as possible,” his letter stated.
Meatpackers and processors have argued that federal inspectors should be considered “essential personnel” who need to stay on the job during any government shutdown. Vilsack acknowledged in a Feb. 12 letter that, although furloughs are “the least desirable option,” there was no other way for USDA to reduce spending on a magnitude necessitated by the sequester.
Assessing the impact
If the mandatory budget cuts take effect, of course, the impact would extend far beyond meat inspection. Up to one-third of USDA's 100,000 employees could be furloughed. The Forest Service might have to shut down hundreds of campground and picnic sites. As many as 600,000 low-income women and children would be dropped from the WIC Program that provides supplemental food and dietary advice.