Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House have caused quite a stir in food and agriculture circles by warning that budget sequestration could lead to a two-week furlough of federal meat inspectors, which would effectively halt American meat and poultry processing. The meat industry has responded by arguing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually legally obligated to provide Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors at meat plants — without an FSIS inspector plants are not allowed to operate — so USDA should instead furlough less important, or “non-essential” employees to meet the automatic cuts. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association on Wednesday accused Vilsack of “using America’s cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency’s political wrangling with Congress” “While we are certain the USDA contains other ‘non-essential’ employees, the Secretary has chosen to announce the consequences of sequestration in terms of a furlough of FSIS inspectors, essentially threating to close down all production, processing and interstate distribution of meat,” said NCBA president Scott George in a statement. “This action has already cost cattle producers significant amounts of money with the downward slide in the futures markets caused by rampant speculation, with untold effect on producers through further regulatory uncertainty.” The restaurant and grocery industries have joined the animal agriculture community in making the same argument, that suspending meat inspection is not an option even if the sequester does force an 8 percent budget on USDA. “Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and other related legislation, Congress has charged the USDA with providing federal inspection of meat, poultry and egg products at government expense,” continued George. “This places a legal duty on the USDA and the administration to carry out this service, a duty which the USDA has recognized as ‘essential’ in the past. And while we understand the hardships placed on the agencies through the possibility of sequestration, we are severely disappointed Secretary Vilsack has chosen to take this path of threatening to halt FSIS inspections.” NCBA estimates that approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide would be severely impacted by a furlough, and that action could result in more than $10 billion in production losses. “Industry workers they estimate would experience over $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices and food safety could be compromised,” read the statement. “NCBA will not stand by while the administration threatens this kind of action against the industry.” Just a day after the American Meat Institute wrote to Vilsack expressing concerns about the furlough, Vilsack wrote back saying that the furloughs would be impossible to avoid under a sequestration scenario. “Because we understand that furloughing our food safety inspectors would not be good for consumers, the economy, the meat and poultry industry, or our workforce, we view such furloughs as the last option we would implement to achieve the necessary sequestration cut,” read the letter, sent on Tuesday. “However, were sequestration to become a reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone as your letter suggests.” The letter concludes with Vilsack asking to put pressure on Congress to avoid the sequestration: “The impact on USDA’s food safety activities is only one of many reasons why it is critical for you to join me in urging Congress to act promptly to prevent sequestration from going into effect.” Photo courtesy of Food Safety and Inspection Service. Story has been updated with links.