Introduced by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), the measure would redirect $55 million from other areas of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, essentially reinstating the funds cut under sequestration. The amendment cleared the upper chamber easily by voice vote during consideration of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past March 27.
The Senate cleared the full spending package on Wednesday 73 to 26. The bill will next be considered as-is by the House, according to most predictions, making it likely that the meat inspector furloughs will be averted.
“This has a direct impact on the private sector,” said Sen. Pryor, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, referring to the threat of FSIS furloughs, which would have temporarily shut down some meat plants.
The Pryor/Blunt amendment is budget neutral because it would transfer the funds from one-time funding for school equipment grants and deferred maintenance on buildings and facilities at USDA, according to a news release from Sen. Blunt’s office. The bill transfers $55 million to cover an estimated $52.8 million cut to FSIS – the current cut amounts to about 5 percent of the agency’s operating budget this year.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday morning that the amendment, which he had voiced support for, is “an acknowledgment that sequestration left USDA with no other option but to furlough meat inspectors.” In recent weeks, political pundits, food industry insiders, and Republicans had questioned whether furloughs were really necessary or if the Obama administration was exaggerating the consequences of the sequester.
“The Senate has now voted to provide us with funding to help address those furloughs, but this action does not eliminate the critical need for Congress to find a responsible solution to sequestration through balanced deficit reduction,” said Vilsack.
In sponsoring the amendment, the senators said they are trying to protect meat and poultry jobs. Some have estimated that the furloughs, which would take place at more than 6,000 meat plants, would cost about 500,000 workers nearly $400 million in wages.
“This amendment solves a very pressing issue that impacts each and every American,” Sen. Blunt said. “Without this funding, every meat, poultry and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down for up to two weeks. That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide.”
Advocacy group Food & Water Watch on Wednesday lambasted the Senate for including a biotech rider in the bill – which would limit federal courts’ ability to halt the planting of genetically engineered crops – but issued praise for the move to avoid the inspector furloughs.
“One thing that the Senate got right was finding a solution for funding meat and poultry inspection that would avoid USDA inspector furloughs,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “The House should maintain this funding for USDA meat and poultry inspection to ensure that this critical consumer protection program can continue to operate.”
The Pryor/Blunt amendment was among only 7 that were considered to be included in the must-pass legislation to keep the government funded – a testament to the meat industry’s clout on Capitol Hill.
As POLITICO reported Wednesday, Senate Republicans had been complaining that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been too restrictive by not allowing more amendments to the CR.
“But Reid has the bipartisan backing of members on the Senate Appropriations Committee,” the beltway paper noted. “And he was careful to give the powerful meat lobby a crack at its top amendment: language that would shift funds to the Food Safety Inspection Service to try to avoid major furloughs in the wake of sequestration.”
This article has been updated to reflect that the Senate CR was approved and to include Secretary Vilsack’s statement.© Food Safety News