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Industry: Government is Obligated to Provide Meat Inspection, Even With Sequester

After the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested that the automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, could force the government to furlough all federal meat inspectors, the food industry is arguing that such a move would violate the government’s legal obligation to keep inspectors at work.

Furloughing more than 6,000 meat safety inspectors housed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would effectively shut down American meat and poultry production because plants must have FSIS inspectors present to operate.

“AMI respectfully disagrees with the Department’s assertion that, in the event of sequestration, the furloughs referenced are necessary and legal,” wrote J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, in a letter to Vilsack on Friday. “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.”

A variety of poultry and food industry groups, including the National Chicken Council, sent a similar letter to Vilsack on Monday.

“Because of the importance of federal inspection to the production of meat, poultry, and egg products, we do not believe furloughing FSIS inspectors to be an appropriate response to sequestration within the framework of the federal meat, poultry, and egg products inspection laws,” wrote the groups. “It certainly would not be in the public interest.”

The industry groups, which also included the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Restaurant Association, warned of immediate hardship for employees of the meat and poultry industries and “devastating trickle-down effects.”

“Farmers raising livestock and poultry would have nowhere to send their animals and would have to shoulder substantial losses. With nowhere for livestock and poultry to go, animal care would become more challenging,” read the letter. “The robust U.S. export trade in meat, poultry, and egg products would all but dry up, and imports would be halted at the border. Schools and other public institutions relying on contracted-for meat and poultry products may not be able to obtain alternate sources of affordable, wholesome protein.”

“And, most alarming, American consumers could face their first widespread shortage of meat, poultry, and egg products in generations,” added the groups.

In its letter to USDA, AMI pointed out that while the vast majority of FSIS’ budget goes to personnel salaries, “not all of those funds are used to pay the inspectors necessary to allow establishments to operate.”

The association suggested that USDA examine other options like suspending non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel in areas of the agency that are not directly involved in in-plant inspection.

AMI argues that this type of approach would allow FSIS to meet its “statutory obligation to provide inspection.”

“By doing so the Department would avoid inflicting unnecessary hardship on more than 500,000 people who work in the meat and poultry industry and the more than one million livestock and poultry producers whose livelihoods also depend on those plants operating, and would also prevent disruption of supplies to the 95 percent of Americans who make meat and poultry a nutritious part of their diets.”

The poultry and food industry groups said they recognized the challenges facing government, but “cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government’s budget deficit.”

Both letters note that industry leaders would happy to meet with USDA about the impact of the sequester.

© Food Safety News
  • These are the same industries that aren’t willing to pay corporate taxes, and most likely aren’t willing to shoulder the costs of the inspections. 

    The same industries that also benefit from government subsidies of corn. 

    Cry me a river. 

  • johnmunsell

    AMI has some good points here.  FSIS spends substantial monies for travel expenses for supervisory personnel which are not needed for plant operation.  Last fall, FSIS wisely closed 5 of their 15 District Offices.  They could close more with no adverse impact on food safety.  It could also reduce its HQ’s staff, and their travel expenses, in DC.

    During my 42 years in the industry, I’ve witnessed FSIS horribly misspending taxpayer dollars.  Ask in-plant inspectors if they have witnessed the same, and you’ll get an earful.

    John Munsell

  • Richard Raymond

    The cuts FSIS Is looking at total around $130,000,000 dollars over 7 months. They cannot get there without suspending some inspection activities. But the picture AMI and others are painting is ridiculous. If inspection were to be decreased it would not shut the industry down and make school kids go hungry. What it might do is stop Saturday  inspections, shut down third shifts. Maybe even stop inspection one half day per week. 42 day old broilers might become 42 1/2 day old broilers and that is not an animal welfare issue. “Widespread shortage of meat”? Ridiculous. But it does show AMI and others are learning from AB C. If you want to create change, spread lies and misinformation that scares people to take action. And, finally, by law FSIS cannot spend money it has not had allocated to it. That is how Congress controls the Administrative Branch of the federal government. 

  • Steven Grossman

    Helena—Good reporting and a great example of everyone playing their designated roles. In DC parlance, this is known as the Washington Monument gambit. When faced with a cutback, the National Park Service will threaten to shorten hours at the Washington Monument (their most visible sight, at least to Congress?), not consider closing a park station in Alaska that no one visits. The story may not be true, but the gambit is well known.

    I am not a student of the FSIS budget, but I feel confident that there is no plan for massive furloughs. If sequestration does go into effect, they will be looking at all the areas suggested by the trade groups and by John Munsell in his comment. If furloughs become necessary–they will be spread out and times so that the impact on any given plant, industry, region, port will be minimal. 

    But the threat is part of the Washington game…and if everyone knows that, then it can be seen as the game it is. 

    All that said, FSIS will be far worse off, as will the FDA, if sequestration occurs. Priorities will be set in a way that minimizes damage, but there will still be damage. Steven Grossman (check out my FDA Matters blog at http://www.fdamatters.com). 

  • Monday, February 11, 2013

    after sequestration, eat at your own risk

    http://madcowusda.blogspot.com/2013/02/after-sequestration-eat-at-your-own-risk.html

  • This is Obuma’s way of trying to get public support in his run away spending. If he shuts down the meat inspectors and people cant get their Big Mac (Whoops, I’m sorry, there is no meat in the Big Mac). they will blame the Repub’s.

  • Minkpuppy

    Doc,
     
    It’s not likely that Saturday inspections would stop.  Saturdays are voluntary overtime days and the overtime is billed to the industry.  The companies that normally work Saturday overtime can well afford it and have no qualms about reimbursing the government for those overtime hours.   If you start telling them they can’t work Saturday, they’ll head for DC with the torches and pitchforks. (Maybe we should let them).    The agency gets the payroll funds back when industry pays their bills so they really don’t incur that much extra expense for providing inspection on Saturday.   It only becomes a problem when the plants don’t pay their OT bills–and FSIS should be given the ability to refuse OT inspection to the ones that don’t pay up.

    I don’t see shutting down third shifts either.  I don’t know of  any plants in this area (or anywhere else) that have 3 inspectors covering 3 shifts.  Usually the inspectors will split the day into 2-12 hours shifts.  Anything beyond 8 hours is reimbursable OT charged to the plants.  The plants working 24 hrs/day generally don’t balk at it. 

    Most of the inspection cuts  and coverage problems are going to occur in the further processing plants.  Large circuits like the one I’m in will probably have 3 or 4 inspectors on furlough on any given day.  The rest of the inspectors will be left covering twice as many plants as usual and might not be able to cover everyone that wants to work past 8 hours.

    I don’t even foresee plants even shutting down 1/2 a day unless business is just that slow anyway.  I’ve worked in plants that are chronically understaffed.  If the VMO and the offline inspectors have to get on the line to allow them to run full capacity, that’s what happens.  The line is not slowed down, shackles are not dropped etc.

     The smaller plants that don’t slaughter/process everyday can be worked with to adjust their production schedule to allow inspectors to be off and not have their business disrupted. 

    What our fearless leader was implying is that FSIS would be forced into a “shutdown furlough” which means no one will be allowed to go to work.  I don’t see that happening.  I’m sure the fax machines and phone lines at HQ were burning up yesterday due to irate industry big wigs. 

    A solution will be found to prevent it.  That has been the game all along with this talk of total meat industry shutdown. 

     

    • Richard Raymond

      I totally agree and admit my errors. OT will not cost FSIS. But we still might see Monday closures.

  • willy2121

    Lobbyist for big food have not slid millions of dollars
    under the table to have their plants sit idle not even for a minute. This will
    not happen in any of our lifetimes.