UPDATE 1-USDA details some furlough plans; horse slaughter ban mulled

Wed Mar 13, 2013 5:30pm EDT

* Furloughs for meat inspectors expected to start mid-July

* Total 11 nonconsecutive days

* Lawmakers oppose horse slaughter, no USDA decision

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - All U.S. meat inspectors will be furloughed on the same days as the federal meat safety agency, a top USDA official said, leading to spotty meat shortages in the summer and fall as automatic spending cuts shave $53 million off the agency's budget.

Agriculture Undersecretary Elizabeth Hagen told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that the furloughs, expected to total 11 days before the end of September, were likely to begin in mid-July. None of the days would come consecutively, she added.

Hagen said the nationwide same-day furloughs were designed to treat all regions of the country equally.

Her testimony put a sharper focus on USDA's plans for carrying out the furloughs. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers last week that the furlough days would not be consecutive, to minimize disruption to the meat industry.

The Obama administration says meat packers and processors would lose $10 billion in production if there was a 2-week shutdown of inspections. Meat plants are not allowed to operate without USDA inspection. There could be spotty meat shortages from a slower production system in the summer and early fall.

All 9,212 U.S. meat safety workers will be furloughed at the same time, including 8,136 "front-line" workers which includes inspectors, lab workers and investigators, Hagen said.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, an Alabama Republican, said he hoped for a "reasonable and responsible way" to minimize the impact of sequestration. Hagen echoed Vilsack in saying there was no way to avoid the mandatory days off because almost all the safety agency's budget was dedicated to front-line work.

Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder said there was "healthy skepticism" that a 5 percent cut in USDA's funds would necessitate such draconian cutbacks. And Republican Tom Latham, from the large hog and cattle producing state of Iowa, asked, "Have you been told to make it as painful as possible?"

"Absolutely not," replied Hagen.

USDA is looking for additional savings, she said, and if they are found, the number of furlough days could be reduced.

BILLS ARE FILED TO BLOCK HORSE SLAUGHTER

Separately, lawmakers filed bills in the House and Senate to restore a ban on U.S. slaughter of horses for human food and to stop shipment of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a sponsor, said horse slaughter "is revolting to me as a horse owner (and) also as a consumer." A ban would preclude a U.S. replica of the current European scandal of horse meat having been passed off as beef, she said.

From 2006 onward, Congress passed an annual ban on horse slaughter but the language was dropped in 2012. USDA told Valley Meat Co, of Roswell, New Mexico, in late February that it would process its application to open a horse processing plant.

Hagen told the House panel "we have not approved" any applications yet for horse slaughter. California Democrat Sam Farr said he was worried about harmful drug residues in horses and asked how USDA could launch inspections of new plants when it was furloughing its inspectors.

Animal welfare groups said the antislaughter bill was a top priority. Groups opposing horse slaughter include the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Society of the United States and a consumer group, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Some 160,000 U.S. horses were shipped for slaughter overseas last year, say the animal welfare groups.

Horse meat is sold for human consumption in China, Russia, Mexico and other countries and is sometimes used to feed zoo animals.