USDA meat inspector furloughs to begin by mid-July, little upset predicted
Worries from meat advocacy groups across the country about meat inspector furloughs may come true this year, leading to spotty meat shortages during the summer and fall, as automatic spending cuts will eliminate $53 million from the USDA’s budget.
Agriculture Undersecretary Elizabeth Hagen told a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 13 that the furloughs, expected to total 11 days before the end of September, were likely to begin in mid-July. None of the days would come consecutively, she added.
The action, which she and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack say are necessary due to the across-the-board nature of the sequestration cuts, would slow the flow of meat animals and poultry through the slaughter process since plants are not allowed to operate without inspectors being present.
According to the Obama administration, a two-week shutdown of inspections would cost meat packers and processors about $10 billion in production, as meat plants are not allowed to operate without USDA inspection. Additionally, Vilsack marked costs at $400 million in wages for workers in his letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski on Feb. 5.
The furloughs, she continued, were designed to affect all areas of the country equally, in order to minimize disruption of the meat industry.
In addition to slowing of the production systems in summer and early fall, all 9,212 U.S. meat safety workers will also be furloughed, including 8,136 “front line” workers. These front line workers include inspectors, lab workers and investigators, said Hagen.
“We will do everything we can to minimize the disruption,” Vilsack was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. “We are looking at a several-month period before furloughs can be implemented.”
Vilsack said the mandated days off without pay would be staggered.
Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder said there was “healthy skepticism” that a five percent cut in USDA’s funds would necessitate such draconian cutbacks.
And Republican Tom Latham, from the large hog and cattle producing state of Iowa, asked, “Have you been told to make it as painful as possible?”
Hagen denied Latham’s accusation, noting that the USDA will continue to look for additional saving options. If they are found, she added, the number of furlough days could be reduced.
Meat producers, from beef to poultry, are also worried about the potential impact of a furlough.
“Possible cutbacks in these areas create the potential for delays in transporting Canadian meat and meat products into the U.S.; for sales of Canadian exports of food products to the U.S. market; and in import of agricultural products and livestock from Canada,” said the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, noting that they will continue to monitor the situation.
According to CME Group, a manufactured slowdown in the flow of animals to slaughter would likely have a larger impact on the value of animals by first backing them up on farms and secondly causing production to increase due to additional weight.
“The number of animals in the pipeline is pretty much set,” said CME Group. “Slowing the rate at which they are removed means more product, not less, and we fear that that means lower prices for producers. But it’s hard to scare consumers with that threat.”