While a series of federal budget cuts are scheduled to go into effect on March 1, the threatened furlough of FSIS federal meat inspectors could be months down the road, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Vilsack said work rules vary for USDA employees, who get from 30 to as many as 120 days, or four months, notice of impending layoffs, reports Reuters.

"I'm not sure what it is in the food safety area," Vilsack told reporters at the annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum after warning that a two-week furlough of all inspectors may be unavoidable.

The USDA has said that U.S. meat processors, who would have to essentially shut down while inspectors were laid off, would lose about $10 billion in production. American consumers could also see higher prices of chicken, pork, beef and other meat products due to resulting shortages.

During a speech to the USDA conference, Vilsack said the meat inspector furlough was "a risk we now face."

"This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item," said Vilsack. Afterward, he told reporters that he could not shift money to cover the cost of inspectors nor could he exempt the meat inspection agency from cuts.

Vilsack is expected to testify at House Agriculture Committee hearing on Tuesday, the first opportunity for lawmakers to ask for details about the budget cuts.

Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, chairman of a House Agriculture subcommittee, wrote Vilsack on Wednesday to argue that the USDA was obliged by law to carry out meat inspections and to say the agency should seek the least disruptive way to curtail spending.

Source: Reuters