UPDATE 1-Meat plant shutdowns inevitable in U.S. budget cuts -USDA

Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:13pm EST

* Meat inspector furloughs may be non-consecutive days

* USDA seeks ways to minimize impact on industry, consumer

* Meat plants must close if no US inspectors on hand

* No word on how furloughs might affect AMS division

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - U.S. meat packers and processors face short-term shutdowns because of impending federal budget cuts but the administration will try to minimize the impact on the industry and consumers, the Agriculture Department said on Tuesday.

The automatic cuts, also called sequestration, are due to take effect on Friday because Congress and the White House are unable to agree on other ways to reduce the federal deficit. USDA says the cuts would force it to lay off its 8,400 meat inspectors for 15 days to produce the savings ordered for its food safety agency.

Early this month, the White House raised the prospect of a mass layoff, which would shutter the meat industry for two weeks. Plants cannot operate without USDA inspectors.

A House subcommittee chairman, Texas Republican Michael Conaway, said on Tuesday that USDA might order furloughs on non-consecutive days to mitigate their effect and keep plants running.

"Specific furlough dates for (inspectors) have yet to be determined but there is no question sequestration will have an adverse effect on food inspection services," said USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe. "USDA is taking steps to minimize the impact of the furloughs on consumers, our employees and the meat industry."

Even so, there would be some shutdowns, USDA said, because there is no way to stretch the workforce to cover all plants while reducing outlays enough.

The administration estimates some $10 billion in production would be lost if inspectors were laid off en masse for two weeks, or their agency's share of cuts. Stores and restaurants could run short of meat temporarily.

The USDA did not respond to questions about how it would approach possible furloughs at its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other things generates prices used as benchmarks for livestock futures at CME Group Inc. The USDA has not mentioned AMS in its comments about the sequester.

Conaway said the administration has not replied in writing to his request for information about meat inspections and the White House budget office "owes us an explanation." The budget office was the first to raise the prospect of a furlough of all 8,400 inspectors and a resultant meat industry shutdown.

Although the spending cuts are due to take effect on Friday, it could be weeks or months before the meat industry is directly affected. Meat inspectors are guaranteed at least 30 days' notice of a furlough.

"This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.

Up to one-third of the USDA's 100,000 employees may be affected by furloughs. The USDA says the cuts would deny food aid to 600,000 pregnant women, new mothers and infants and also force closure of hundreds of Forest Service campgrounds, picnic areas and visitors' centers during the spring and summer.

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (3)
luggage2013 wrote:
I can’t beleive there is a one ot one relationship for inspectors to meat plants. I am poositive there aren’t 45,000 food imspectors in USA .

Feb 26, 2013 8:45pm EST  --  Report as abuse
luggage2013 wrote:
hw can they out right lie like that ? there are 50,000 + food manufacturers so of course inspectors DON’T stay n each plant daily . We expect factories to maintain proper safety while we aren’t there watching.

Feb 26, 2013 8:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
ButchSwaim wrote:
Now it will be easier to sneak in some horse meat.

Feb 26, 2013 10:52pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.