U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he’s confident government shutdown will be avoided as Democrats and Republicans fight over a budget plan for the rest of 2011.

Government shutdown is being widely discussed as a possibility as the debate continues over what type of spending plan should be put in place past Friday, March 4, the day the current stop-gap measure funding the government officially expires.

When asked about real possibility of government shutdown at the 2011 Ag Outlook Forum in Washington, DC late last week, Vilsack declined to discuss the matter.  “I honestly think that congressional leaders and the president are sincere in trying to get this thing worked out,” he told reporters.

“We have contingency plans,” he added, declining to go into detail about which programs might be impacted if Congress fails to come to a budget deal this week.

“At this point in time we’re focused on doing our job and letting Congress do theirs,” said Vilsack. “But we stand ready to do what we need to do to make sure that services are not negatively impacted in key and important areas.”

In past government shutdowns USDA’s food safety responsibilities were largely unaffected.

President Bill Clinton and House Republicans failed to find agreement on a budget plan in late 1995, a standoff that resulted in a five day U.S. federal government shutdown in November and a 21 day hiatus between December and January 1996. Both times non-essential government employees were furloughed.

Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspection personnel were considered essential employees–in both the 1995-96 and 1981 shutdowns federal meat inspection continued. As did the border patrol, air traffic control and other essential services. (In 1981, an Office of Management and Budget memo also lists food and drug inspections as exempted from shutdown.)

Meat inspection would likely continue if the government shut down this week, but other USDA programs could be brought to a halt.

Without the benefit of USDA inspection, meat companies cannot legally put their product into interstate commerce.