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Vilsack: With Sequester, USDA Would Have “No Choice” But to Furlough Food Safety Inspectors

Cattlemen accuse administration for playing politics with meat inspection

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House have caused quite a stir in food and agriculture circles by warning that budget sequestration could lead to a two-week furlough of federal meat inspectors, which would effectively halt American meat and poultry processing.

The meat industry has responded by arguing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually legally obligated to provide Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors at meat plants — without an FSIS inspector plants are not allowed to operate — so USDA should instead furlough less important, or “non-essential” employees to meet the automatic cuts.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association on Wednesday accused Vilsack of “using America’s cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency’s political wrangling with Congress”

“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,” said NCBA president Scott George in a statement. “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.”

The restaurant and grocery industries have joined the animal agriculture community in making the same argument, that suspending meat inspection is not an option even if the sequester does force an 8 percent budget on USDA.

“Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and other related legislation, Congress has charged the USDA with providing federal inspection of meat, poultry and egg products at government expense,” continued George. “This places a legal duty on the USDA and the administration to carry out this service, a duty which the USDA has recognized as ‘essential’ in the past. And while we understand the hardships placed on the agencies through the possibility of sequestration, we are severely disappointed Secretary Vilsack has chosen to take this path of threatening to halt FSIS inspections.”

NCBA estimates 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.

“Industry workers they estimate would experience over $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices and food safety could be compromised,” read the statement. “NCBA will not stand by while the administration threatens this kind of action against the industry.”

Just a day after the American Meat Institute wrote to Vilsack expressing concerns about the furlough, Vilsack wrote back saying that the furloughs would be impossible to avoid under a sequestration scenario.

“Because we understand that furloughing our food safety inspectors would not be good for consumers, the economy, the meat and poultry industry, or our workforce, we view such furloughs as the last option we would implement to achieve the necessary sequestration cut,” read the letter, sent on Tuesday. “However, 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 letter concludes with Vilsack asking to put pressure on Congress to avoid the sequestration: “The impact on USDA’s food safety activities is only one of many reasons why it is critical for you to join me in urging Congress to act promptly to prevent sequestration from going into effect.”

Photo courtesy of Food Safety and Inspection Service. Story has been updated with links.


© Food Safety News
  • doc_raymond

    The untruths uttered from both sides continue to amaze me.  “Food safety  could be compromised.” My friends at NCBA know better than that. If there is no inspection, there is no food being produced. How does that compromise food safety? Jobs, yes, prices, yes, but leave food safety out of the debate.

    And a “two week furlough” of inspectors? I sincerely hope that the Secretary of the USDA knows better than to imply that the industry would be shut down for two continuous weeks. USDA has looked at the scenario of draconian budget cuts before, and the plan has always been to institute “rolling furloughs”, shuttering a plant for a day or even just a portion of a day every other week or so for humane issues as well as to prevent the shortages of meat and poultry on our grocers’ shelves. Yes, this is an economic problem for all, but it is not an access to meat problem. Both sides need to clean up the rhetoric.

    And BTW, for a more accurate reporting on the scenario, an 8% budget cut instituted in March of a fiscal year ending Sept 30 is, in reality, a 13% cut. That is over $130,000,000 in cuts that USDA/FSIS needs to find. Trust me, there are not that many “non-essential” FTEs in the agency to get there without furloughing inspectors and DVMs that make up more than 80% of the work force at FSIS. The other 20% you may attack as non-essential are performing laboratory testing, educating the public on proper handling and cooking, responding to FOIA requests from consumer groups, corresponding and testifying with Congress, etc.

    • jeffgood

       You should be a reporter.  Not a single reporter covering this story asked how an 8% budget cut would result in the loss of 20% of inspector time.  Now I understand that it is a 13% cut, but I still don’t understand why all inspectors need be cut from 5 days a week to 4 (other than to allow all the desk jockeys back at the office to remain fully employed).

      A simple solution is a surcharge excise tax on all inspections to fund the inspections.  Or, as you say, just produce less meat.  Prices for meat will rise, consumption will fall, and we might find that we not only saved taxpayer money but increase taxpayer health.

  • What is stated about the Federal Meat Inspection act is true,  USDA is mandated to provide inspection , how can he legaly do that?

    • doc_raymond

      USDA is also mandated to only spend the money it is authorized to spend by Congress. Not enough money to pay inspectors, inspectors are furloughed.

  • nicknaranja

    Food safety should be a very high priority, there is plenty of welfare, both to farmers and the impoverished, that should be on the chopping block first.

  • mustangmonti

    I work as an Agriculture Specialist with CBP at an airport and it is unbelievable the amount of food items (legal entry items) that people bring from other countries. Let’s tax each and every single food item passengers bring, I mean EVERYTHING. Let’s allow travelers to bring all the bottles of rum and cigars they want to bring and let’s tax them as well. If they don’t want to pay taxes, then we seize the items and dispose of them. Not the solution to the overall problem but if we need to generate revenue now, let’s go full blast then.

  • bi_obill

    Va sack should learn from Hillary and others that following Obama,s progressive one world  ideology is unconstitutional 

  • Tukas

    “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,” said NCBA president Scott George in a statement.”This is normally called —blackmail.

  • Funny. I’m sure Scott George (president of Am. Cattlemen’s Ass’n) is perfectly happy with the fact that the government is ignoring federal regulations allowing wild horses and burros to have priority use of public grazing lands (Wild Horse and Burro Act, 1971), but he’s crying great big old crocodile tears over the fact that sequestration may circumvent one of his favorite regulations (Federal Meat Inspection Act) that’s given his peeps an endless supply of outlets for their meat- the meat of cattle that were fattened on the wild horses’ public lands grasses.