The Obama administration warned on Friday that across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March may result in furloughing every U.S. meat and poultry inspector for two weeks, causing the meat industry to shut down. Shut the shutdown occur, an estimated $10 billion in production would be lost, reports Reuters, and consumers could see meat shortages and higher prices as a result.

The furlough threat was part of a larger warning from the White House concerning the effects of potential spending cuts on everyday life. President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans still must resolve differences over spending cuts and tax increases, dubbed the "fiscal cliff," which essentially was delayed by both sides from happening on Jan. 1 and was pushed back until March.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lamented across-the-board spending cuts during a speech to state agriculture directors earlier this week.
"There is not much we can do when Congress says to cut every line item by a certain percent," Vilsack said. He said employee pay accounted for the bulk of spending at the meat safety agency.

The meat industry has responded to the two-week furlough threat, stating that such an event would devastate the industry. American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle has written to both USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama to state that the U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services.

"As the possibility of sequestration becomes more real, so does the threat to the industry’s ability to provide a critical component of the food supply," Boyle wrote, adding that USDA inspectors have historically been deemed "essential" personnel. He said that that for many years, the Office of Management and Budget has deemed essential those employees whose "activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials." 

"In that regard, the mission statement on the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s website states: ‘The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged,’" he added.

Boyle noted comments made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week in which he said it may be necessary to furlough meat inspectors for up to two weeks, an action Vilsack estimated would cost the industry $10 billion and cost employees $400 million in lost wages.

"It is incumbent upon the Secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspection services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act," Boyle said.

The National Chicken Council and a coalition of 37 other organizations representing the animal agriculture industry issued a statement urging the USDA to uphold its commitment to food safety inspection.

"We understand USDA is considering implementing a sequestration plan that would result in furloughing all the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS's) meat, poultry and egg products inspectors for 15 days," the groups wrote. "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. It certainly would not be in the public interest."

The letter detailed not only the negative effects that furloughing meat and poultry inspectors would have economically, but it also pointed out the negative effects on meat and poultry exports and imports, on schools and other public institutions that rely on contracted-for meat and poultry products, on the welfare of livestock and poultry and on American consumers.

The groups also noted that even when the federal government has shut down due to lack of appropriations, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors were among the "essential" federal employees who stayed on the job. FSIS's plans for a potential shutdown in April 2011, for example, declared FSIS inspectors "necessary to protect life and health" and "essential to the nation's food safety operations."

"We fail to see how employees performing such a critical function as to be exempted from a full government shutdown should be furloughed to make up a budget shortfall," the letter continued.

Further, furloughing FSIS inspectors would be inconsistent with the mandates of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act, which prohibit the production, processing, or interstate distribution of meat, poultry and egg products without federal inspection. Of significance, and as USDA itself has acknowledged in the past, these laws require USDA to provide inspection at government expense.

The letter concluded, "We recognize that sequestration presents significant challenges that require USDA and all other federal government agencies to make difficult decisions to prioritize resources. But cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government's budget deficit. We urge USDA to examine all options available to meet its obligations under sequestration while upholding its commitment to ensuring that American consumers have access to the safe, wholesome and nutritious protein sources they have come to expect from the nation's meat, poultry and egg products industries."

Sources: Reuters, AMI, NCC