USDA chief says meat inspector furloughs still months away

Furloughs of U.S. meat inspectors that could disrupt meat delivery throughout the country will probably be concentrated in July through September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers March 5.

Vilsack said furloughs of meat inspectors required under sequestration, or automatic budget cuts that took effect this month, will disrupt the meat industry. He said USDA will send furlough notices to meat inspectors, but it will be several months before they will occur because of the extensive preparations needed.

The furloughs, which could lead to spotty shutdowns of meat plants and meat shortages, would be one of the most visible effects of sequestration, he said. By law, processors cannot ship meat without the USDA inspection seal.

“We will do everything we can to minimize disruptions,” Vilsack said at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee. “It will impact inspections.”

USDA has said it would stagger the furloughs to minimize their effect on operations. “I don’t think you’re going to see a continuous furlough,” Vilsack told lawmakers at a hearing on the state of the rural economy days after U.S. President Barack Obama signed the sequester order.

The Obama administration says all 8,400 inspectors might be furloughed for a total of 15 days. Vilsack said the total was more likely to be 11 or 12 days.

One-third of USDA’s 100,000 employees may be affected by furloughs.

Vilsack said the furloughs were unavoidable when spending must be cut by 10 to 12 per cent for the rest of the year — to achieve a five per cent cut for the fiscal year — and inspectors account for 87 per cent of the meat agency’s budget.

“No matter how you slice it,” said Vilsack, furloughs are certain. “We are going to try to maintain movement through the (meat industry) process,” he said.

USDA’s funding was cut by $1.9 billion by the sequester. USDA says the cuts mean less money for soil conservation and farm loans, the shutdown of campgrounds and visitor centres in some national forests and a smaller caseload for the so-called WIC program that provides additional food for poor, pregnant women, new mothers and their children.

The item-by-item cuts would also reduce slightly the funds available for a $147-million payment due this year to Brazil as a step toward resolving a World Trade Organization ruling against U.S. cotton subsidies, Vilsack said.

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