* Furloughs would temporarily shut US meat plants
* Food aid to 600,000 mothers, infants in peril
* USDA would close forest campgrounds, picnic sites
* Timing of furloughs, other cuts is uncertain
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Feb 19 The U.S. Agriculture
Department would furlough up to one-third of its workers if
automatic spending cuts take effect at the end of the month, the
agency warned, with effects ranging from a two-week shutdown of
meat plants to summertime closure of hundreds of national forest
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the impact of
the cuts, amounting to $2 billion, in a letter that warned
"these furloughs and other actions would severely disrupt our
ability to provide a broad range of public services."
USDA released a copy of the letter on Tuesday.
Vilsack reiterated the prospect of "a nationwide shutdown of
meat and poultry plants during a furlough of (meat) inspection
personnel" for "as much as 15 days of lost production, costing
over $10 billion in production losses."
Meat packers and processors cannot sell beef, pork, lamb and
poultry meat without the USDA inspection seal. Inspection of
meat for export or import also would stop during a furlough,
said USDA. The industry has appealed to USDA to find ways to
avoid a disruptive shutdown.
Vilsack did not say how soon furloughs might occur. An aide
said she had no additional information. Vilsack assured USDA
employees in early February they would get at least 30 days'
notice if they were being furloughed.
"Should sequestration occur, we would likely need to
implement furloughs impacting about a third of our workforce, as
well as other actions," Vilsack wrote in the letter to
Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, head of the
Senate Appropriations Committee.
USDA has roughly 100,000 employees, down by 4,000 in two
Up to 600,000 low-income women and infants could be cut from
the so-called WIC program that provides supplemental food and
nutrition education if the budget cuts last for the rest of this
fiscal year, according to the letter. Current enrollment is
nearly 9 million pregnant women, new mothers and their children.
Other cuts, Vilsack said, could include:
-Closure of 670 of the Forest Service's 19,000 recreation
sites, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, in the
national forests and shorter hours at visitor centers. "This
would largely occur during the peak use seasons in spring and
summer," said USDA. The Forest Service would reduce its law
enforcement force by 35 workers to 707 officers.
-A work pause on the Census of Agriculture. "Data will
become incomplete and will not be statistically sound for
publication," said USDA. The census, conducted every five years,
provides valuable data on farm operation and output that is used
in USDA's forecasts. USDA faced repeated funding shortages for
its crop and livestock reports in the past couple of years.
-A slowdown in USDA aid to landowners wanting expert advice
or matching funds to control runoff from fields and feedlots and
a reduction in USDA-backed loans to farmers to buy land or cover
operating costs until harvest.