Vilsack on sequester: Meat and poultry inspection furloughs are 'last option'

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2013 - Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded Tuesday to trade associations that had criticized USDA for threatening widespread Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) furloughs should sequestration take effect next month. 

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"Because we understand that furloughing our food safety inspectors would not be good for our consumers, the economy, the meat and poultry industry, or our workforce, we view such furloughs as the last option we would implement to achieve the necessary sequestration cut," Secy. Vilsack wrote in a letter to American Meat Institute President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle. 

Because meat and poultry production cannot occur if an inspection official is not on the floor, furloughs would cause widespread shutdowns in those industries, possibly leading to shortages and higher prices. USDA estimates that furloughs would cause $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. 

AMI's Boyle sent a letter to Secy. Vilsack on Monday arguing USDA had an "obligation to provide inspection services," even if deep sequestration cuts put a strain on the department's budget. 

"Rather than impose across the board furloughs that will lead to plant closures," Boyle wrote, "it is incumbent upon the Department to examine the options available to it, e.g., suspending certain non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel within the 13 different offices (only one of which involves inspectors in plant) that make up FSIS."

AMI also penned a letter Monday to President Obama that framed FSIS' inspection duties as "legal obligations." 

Though Vilsack acknowledged USDA's responsibility to keep inspections running, he said sequestration did not include exemption provisions "that would be applicable to FSIS inspection activities." Should sequestration take effect, he argued, the department would be forced to enact furloughs to "comply with budget and fiscal laws enacted by Congress." 

Sequestration will take effect on March 1st unless Congress comes to some sort of budget deal before that date.


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