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Vilsack: Under Sequestration, USDA Cannot Avoid Furloughing Meat Inspectors

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
  • http://twitter.com/JessCRajan Jess C. Rajan

    The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provides agencies with instructions on how to prepare for and operate during a funding gap.  The 2011 version of the FSIS activities required under an orderly shutdown is posted on the OMB’s website:
     
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/files/omb/contingencyplans/USDAfsis_040811_1359.pdf

    May be, Secretary Vilsack could post the current (2013) version of the OMB approved contingency plans on the agency’s website.

  • ban ang

    The GOP wants to drown the Govt in a bath-tub. So what results is a FAILED state just a Norquist wanted, and just as Marx predicted, where the govt. will wither away. Are Norquist and the GOP closet Marxists then?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000047535473 Linda La Chance

    but hey those jerks in the House known as Tea Party  keep protecting the $8 billion in tax credits Exon gets.  While the  we save $55 million in wages by screwing fed employees, and rest of America  GEE WHERE  THE REPUBS PRIORITY IS CLEAR THEIR OWNERS

  • Oginikwe

    Why doesn’t industry just make that payroll since they’re the ones that need them and we won’t buy their products without them.  It would be the patriotic thing to do and they get the tax deduction. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/HGRUZAIKNXKW2JBL2X7UHYYM2Y Abel

    There are too many Chiefs in Washington as it is. What about those snow days or holidays that “Other people”  in DC get adminstrative leave  early to spend time with their famlies, or not come in at all because of all the snow. Well guess what “the inspectors” still have to come to work. So who is more important to protect consumers on food safety? By furloughing all those “other people” for the 22 days, we could save thousands of not millions.
    Furlough Congress and Senate, they’re not doing anything important but fighting like a bunch of street gangs!!! 

  • Hydroman001@yahoo.com

    Vilsack will furlough meat inspectors and doesn’t bat an eye at looseing $80 million subsidizing th sugar growers buying 400,000 tons of sugar to “keep the price up”. Unbelievable