Congress working to stop inspector furloughs
Washington, D.C. – In the wake of sequestration, the ability of USDA to have adequate funding to provide for meat inspectors has been a concern.
Only last week, on March 13, USDA Undersecretary Elizabeth Hagen informed the House Appropriations committee that likely furloughs could be expected to total 11 days between July and September.
However, Congress began to act quickly on the issue, also addressing the impending expiration of the Continuing Resolution (CR) put in place at the beginning of this year.
On March 20, the U.S. Senate voted to provide extra funds to the USDA, which would allow the agency to forego furloughing meat inspectors.
In an amendment, the Senate moved $55 million in the USDA budget to the Food Safety (FSIS) Inspection Service, which funds meat inspectors. The money was taken from grants to schools, which would fund cafeteria equipment and maintenance money for USDA.
According to DTN, “The move boosted FSIS’ total budget for the year to $1.056 billion, which should adequately fund the agency enough to avoid furloughing meat inspectors.”
The initial amendment was made by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), but was backed by Senators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.).
“After much hard work, I’m pleased to see that the Senate has unanimously approved our amendment,” Pryor said. “By solving this funding gap, we’ve been able to protect private sector jobs, keep food prices affordable and help nearly 40,000 employees in my state alone.”
The legislation designates USDA inspectors and other federal workers as “essential services,” giving the agency more latitude to move funds and keep inspectors working, which in turn keeps meat processing plants up and running.
Pryor’s amendment was made to a Continuing Resolution (CR), which will fund the government after March 27, when the current CR expires.
On the other side, the House of Representatives took the same action, passing the same CR as the Senate on March 21.
With a vote of 318 to 109, the House approved the CR that not only avoids USDA inspector furloughs, but also provides for USDA leadership to maintain essential employees during the sequester. According to the bill, essential employees are those employees who “perform work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, as determined by the head of the agency.”
The legislation is headed to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature. After that, the USDA must decide how to implement the measure.
Nationwide, the agriculture industry has praised the move, and markets reflected the change.
Tyson Foods, the number one U.S. meat provider, said, “This is good news for consumers, farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and meat companies.”
Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Association said, “Getting the Senate to put it in there was critical [and] shows just how much people do understand the impact it was going to have, not just on the meat packers but on the whole supply chain.”
The American Meat Institute (AMI) also expressed appreciation over the move.
“We are gratified that lawmakers recognized the essential nature of meat and poultry inspection by taking this step to prevent inspector furloughs,” said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle in a statement.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also applauded the effort.
“This is great news for every segment of American agriculture,” said NCBA President Scott George, a cattleman from Cody. “With this shift of finances, Congress was able to avoid the crisis created by the administration and keep FSIS inspectors in the plants where they belong. While cattlemen and women were disappointed Secretary Vilsack threw in the towel on his agency’s 107-year-old duty to provide federal food safety inspections, we sincerely thank Senators Blunt and Pryor for ensuring the nation’s food supply will not be limited by politics.”
“Had inspection been halted, this would have resulted in a backlog of animals, shortened supply of beef to market, higher prices and harm to the futures markets,” continued George. “By the Secretary’s own estimates, this would have equated to $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages, only compounding the issues faced by ranchers dealing with the worst drought in 50 years.”
Potential impacts of furlough
In the event that an 11-day furlough occurrs for USDA meat inspectors, estimates showed that significant impacts could result.
The Office of Management and Budget predicted that a two-week shutdown would result in a loss of $10 billion for packers and processors, in addition to a loss of $400 million in lost wages for industry workers.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association also expressed concerns for the industry in the wake of furloughs, noting that any halt in production would adversely affect their export markets.
The furlough could have also resulted in higher meat prices and spot shortages of meat in grocery stores and restaurants.