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Forced government furloughs could cause meat shortages

Reuters / Americans should expect to experience spotty shortages of meat due to furloughs of food inspectors caused by federal budget cuts, but the government will stagger the layoffs to minimize the impact, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Feb. 27.

Automatic budget cuts began to take effect March 1 when the nation’s largest employer, the U.S. government, began notifying its vast and varied workforce to prepare for reduced hours and slashed paycheques over the next seven months as big budget cuts that were once an abstraction became a reality March 1.

Some 115,000 employees of the Department of Justice — including prosecutors across the country — were among the first to get the official word in notices that actually started going out last week, hours before the $85 billion in cuts were set to take effect.

They were told they would be furloughed for “no more than 14 workdays” between April 21 and Sept. 30.

During an interview with Reuters TV earlier in the week, Vilsack said furloughs of meat inspectors, and the cascading impact on the meat industry, were unavoidable although shortages were unlikely to occur immediately.

“At some point, you’re going to have shortages,” said Vilsack. “The reality is there are going to be disruptions.”

The White House says USDA’s meat safety agency would have to furlough its 8,400 inspectors for the equivalent of 15 days to compile the savings required under the automatic cuts. But those days off could be structured in various ways.

Vilsack says USDA would try to minimize the impact on consumers and the meat industry. It will depend, he said, on “how many days we have to furlough and how we stagger those days.”

It was the first time Vilsack mentioned staggering the furloughs, although officials have said the furloughs might occur on non-consecutive days.

A mass layoff of inspectors would shut down nearly 6,300 meat-packing and -processing plants because companies cannot ship meat that lacks the USDA inspection seal. The White House estimates the industry would lose $10 billion in production with a two-week shutdown.

Meat processors say the government is required by law to provide meat inspection and USDA should find other ways to save money and keep inspectors on the job.

Vilsack did not specify how furloughs at other USDA agencies might be structured. For example, the Agricultural Marketing Service generates prices used as benchmarks for livestock futures at CME Group Inc.

USDA personnel also perform key roles in inspecting exports of U.S. grains and cotton.

The across-the-board cutbacks were mandated by an August, 2011 deficit reduction law, structured to be so disruptive that Congress would ultimately replace them with more targeted savings.

Congress postponed them for two months in the January “fiscal cliff” deal, but that delay ended March 1, after Democrats, who control the White House and the U.S. Senate, and Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, failed to agree on a way forward.

Notices of “intent to furlough” have gone to many of the unions representing government employees, with whom officials of each agency are required to consult as they plan the reductions in work days designed to achieve the savings mandated by Congress in August, 2011.

The Department of the Army informed unions that all civilian units may need to schedule up to 176 “non-contiguous hours” of furlough, equating to 22 eight-hour days between April and the end of the government’s fiscal year in September.

The military employs roughly 800,000 civilians, and with half the $85 billion in cuts concentrated on defence, those workers are expected to be among the hardest hit.

U.S. ports of entry, with thousands of immigration, customs and transportation-related employees will also be heavily impacted.

The full extent of the disruption the furloughs might cause won’t be clear for some weeks, as federal rules require that 30 days pass before they can be implemented.

According to government officials, no employees will be taken off the job before then, though hiring freezes are already in effect at many federal agencies in anticipation of the cuts.

The White House and heads of top agencies in Washington have said that if the cuts continue for the full seven months mandated under the law, the furloughs could disrupt virtually every federal activity in the country, from patrols along the borders to inspections of meat in plants to the movement of cargo and people through airports and customs.

Theoretically, the sequestration could continue for another nine years under the law establishing the cuts, though that is considered unlikely.

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