* Meatpackers say move is "good news" for consumers
* USDA food agency would get $55 mln to keep inspectors at
* Critics say biotech "rider" weakens control of GMO crops
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, March 21 Congress approved $55
million on Thursday to prevent the furlough of all U.S. meat
inspectors this summer, a step that could have driven up meat
prices and created spot shortages in grocery stores and
The money for meat inspectors was part of a bill to pay for
federal operations through the end of this fiscal year. The bill
did not restore budget cuts that took effect on March 1,
In a special step, lawmakers shifted $55 million in
Agriculture Department funding so that its food safety agency
would have enough money to keep its 8,400 inspectors on the job.
Senators wrote the shift into the bill on Wednesday, the House
approved it and sent it to President Barack Obama on Thursday.
Livestock futures prices in Chicago rose following the House
vote. The threat of one-day-a-week furloughs beginning in
mid-July has weighed on cattle and hog prices for weeks. Meat
packers and processors are barred from operating their 6,300
plants without USDA inspectors.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement the $55
million "provides us with funding to help address those
In a statement Tyson Foods, the No 1 U.S. meat provider,
said, "This is good news for consumers, farmers, grocery stores,
restaurants and meat companies."
Cargill, the No 3 U.S. meat company, hailed the prospect of
uninterrupted meat inspection through the Sept. 30 end of the
But Rep Robert Aderholt of Alabama, who oversees the USDA
budget, said "it has taken an act of Congress to get this
administration to do the right thing."
Republican lawmakers and some meat industry officials say
USDA designed its response to the budget cuts to be as hurtful
as possible, a suggestion the agency has rejected.
For his part, Vilsack insisted there was no alternative to
11-day furloughs of all 8,400 inspectors because of the March 1
spending cuts, which were equal to 9 percent of the money
remaining for meat inspection for the rest of the year. USDA
said it had intended to minimize the impact by scheduling the
furloughs on non-consecutive days.
"We are gratified that lawmakers recognized the essential
nature of meat and poultry inspection by taking this step to
prevent inspector furloughs," said the American Meat Institute,
a trade group.
The government funding bill carried a "biotech rider"
authorizing commercial cultivation and sale of a genetically
engineered crop while USDA carries out court-ordered research.
The rider applies in instances where a court vacated USDA
approval of a biotech variety but there is no final ruling.
The Center for Food Safety, an opponent of genetically
modified foods, said the provision undermines the power of
federal courts to block potentially hazardous crops from
entering the food chain. The consumer group Food and Water Watch
said the provision weakens biotech regulation.
USDA approval is needed for commercial sale of biotech
crops. At present, USDA approval of a biotech variety of alfalfa
is being challenged in court.
USDA lost $1.9 billion in the automatic cuts that took
effect on March 1. It has said up to one-third of its 100,000
employees will be affected by furloughs and it would have to
close Forest Service visitor centers and campgrounds as well as
deny enrollment of 600,000 poor pregnant women, new mothers and
their children into the so-called WIC program that provides
additional food aid.