Under the sequester, which recently put in place across-the-board budget cuts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no choice but to eventually furlough meat inspectors, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack again said on Friday. The statement comes after some lawmakers and industry groups questioned whether USDA needed to furlough inspectors and argued that the department had a legal obligation to provide meat inspection.
When it comes to meat inspection, “there will be disruption in that process,” said Vilsack, in remarks at the Commodity Classic, a convention of corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum farmers. “Make no mistake about it, there is not enough flexibility in the sequester language for me to move money around to avoid furloughs of food inspectors.”
“It is not something I want to do, its not something I like doing, but it’s the law and it’s something I am going to have to do, unless this thing gets resolved,” he added.
With the mandated cuts, which kicked in on March 1, USDA’s budget in 2013 will be less than it was in 2009, according to Vilsack, who highlighted that the department had recently trimmed more than $700 million by modernizing and reducing waste.
Under the sequester, USDA’s operating budget will be reduced by another billion to a billion and a half dollars and there is no flexibility in how the cuts are structured, he told the audience.
“The way this is structured, every line item of our budget and every account that’s not exempted by Congress has to be cut by a certain percentage,” said Vilsack, adding that he has no flexibility to move money between programs, so funds from nutrition, for example, cannot be moved to cover food safety.
Vilsack noted that it wont just be the roughly 8,000 meat inspectors in more than 6,000 plants that are impacted, but also the 250,000 people who work in the plants.
He also said there was no way for USDA to further reduce administrative or travel costs in order to avoid the cuts because USDA has been reducing spending in anticipation of budget reductions.
“Frankly, I have to apologize to all of you, because this is crazy what is happening,” he said. “This shouldn’t happen. In a functioning democracy, this shouldn’t happen. People should recognize that we have fiscal issues and we should address them – it’s a combination of additional revenue and cuts.”
In a press conference following his speech, Vilsack responded to questions about a recent letter from several U.S. senators that took issue with meat inspector furloughs and asked for the department’s legal justification for the move.
The secretary said USDA is working on developing that legal opinion, but said again he believes there is currently no way to avoid inspector furloughs unless Congress comes up with an alternative to the sequester.
Vilsack explained that even within FSIS’ budget there was no flexibility to avoid inspector furloughs because 87 percent of that budget directly funds or supports inspectors. He said another five percent goes toward operating expenses and the rest funds testing, analysis and other “back room stuff.”
On top of that, the secretary said he is only legally allowed to furlough individual employees for 22 total days. “You could furlough everybody else other than inspectors for 22 days and you would still have to furlough inspectors. And by furloughing those other people the inspectors couldn’t do their jobs.”
According to Vilsack, furlough notices will be sent out this week to “start the clock” on notice procedures, but he did not specify whether that would include inspectors.© Food Safety News