USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has threatened to furlough all U.S. meat inspectors for two weeks because of automatic spending cuts scheduled for March 1. The federal agency has said it would give at least 30 days’ notice to employees.
And according to the USDA, if the budget cuts take effect, up to one-third of USDA’s 100,000 employees might be furloughed.
Additionally, the Forest Service might close hundreds of campground and picnic sites, while 600,000 poor women and children would be dropped from a program that provides additional food.
Reuters points out that without federal inspectors, the 6,290 U.S. meat and poultry plants would have to halt operations and would lose an estimated $10 billion in production. Moreover, some grocery stores could run short of meat and prices for meat could skyrocket.
Meat specialist Robert Maddock at DSU’s meat lab says there are currently about 8,500 USDA inspectors working in slaughterhouses, processing plants, and in communities across the country, and, according to Maddock, the proposed 71% cut would also impact local businesses.
Maddock says the statewide impact would be tough not just for business, but for the individuals who work at the plants, too: “One of the largest [plants] in North Dakota is Cloverdale and Mandan with several hundred employees, and those employees wouldn’t be able to work if there was no inspection.”
Texas Republican Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee overseeing crops and risk management, said the layoff of all U.S. meat inspectors for two weeks is a misguided way to cut federal spending and flouts the government’s responsibility to assure a reliable food supply.
“I am concerned that your plan to furlough (meat) inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers,” wrote Conaway.
Conaway asked for a detailed explanation of how the USDA would carry out overall budget cuts of about $2 billion and how it would keep the meat supply moving. Ranchers and farmers “need you to manage these cuts in a way that protects them from as much harm as possible,” he said
Meat packers and processors say food inspectors should be counted as essential personnel “who need to stay on the job during a government shutdown, which was their status in the past. Vilsack said in a February 12 letter that, although furloughs are the least desirable option, there was no other way to satisfy the impending cuts.”
“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,” wrote Vilsack.
Vilsack is expected to testify at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on rural economic conditions tomorrow, three days before the cuts would take effect.