After the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested that the automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, could force the government to furlough all federal meat inspectors, the food industry is arguing that such a move would violate the government’s legal obligation to keep inspectors at work.

Furloughing more than 6,000 meat safety inspectors housed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would effectively shut down American meat and poultry production because plants must have FSIS inspectors present to operate.

“AMI respectfully disagrees with the Department’s assertion that, in the event of sequestration, the furloughs referenced are necessary and legal,” wrote J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, in a letter to Vilsack on Friday. “The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (the Acts) impose many obligations on the inspected industry, which we strive to meet. Those Acts, also however, impose an obligation on the Department – to provide inspection services.”

A variety of poultry and food industry groups, including the National Chicken Council, sent a similar letter to Vilsack on Monday.

“Because of the importance of federal inspection to the production of meat, poultry, and egg products, we do not believe furloughing FSIS inspectors to be an appropriate response to sequestration within the framework of the federal meat, poultry, and egg products inspection laws,” wrote the groups. “It certainly would not be in the public interest.”

The industry groups, which also included the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Restaurant Association, warned of immediate hardship for employees of the meat and poultry industries and “devastating trickle-down effects.”

“Farmers raising livestock and poultry would have nowhere to send their animals and would have to shoulder substantial losses. With nowhere for livestock and poultry to go, animal care would become more challenging,” read the letter. “The robust U.S. export trade in meat, poultry, and egg products would all but dry up, and imports would be halted at the border. Schools and other public institutions relying on contracted-for meat and poultry products may not be able to obtain alternate sources of affordable, wholesome protein.”

“And, most alarming, American consumers could face their first widespread shortage of meat, poultry, and egg products in generations,” added the groups.

In its letter to USDA, AMI pointed out that while the vast majority of FSIS’ budget goes to personnel salaries, “not all of those funds are used to pay the inspectors necessary to allow establishments to operate.”

The association suggested that USDA examine other options like suspending non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel in areas of the agency that are not directly involved in in-plant inspection.

AMI argues that this type of approach would allow FSIS to meet its “statutory obligation to provide inspection.”

“By doing so the Department would avoid inflicting unnecessary hardship on more than 500,000 people who work in the meat and poultry industry and the more than one million livestock and poultry producers whose livelihoods also depend on those plants operating, and would also prevent disruption of supplies to the 95 percent of Americans who make meat and poultry a nutritious part of their diets.”

The poultry and food industry groups said they recognized the challenges facing government, but “cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government’s budget deficit.”

Both letters note that industry leaders would happy to meet with USDA about the impact of the sequester.