* No way to avoid meat inspector furloughs, Vilsack says
* USDA may stagger layoffs to minimize impact on industry
* No clarity on timing of overall USDA furloughs
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 Americans should expect to experience spotty shortages of meat due to furloughs of food inspectors caused by federal budget cuts, but the government will stagger the layoffs to minimize the impact, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.
Automatic budget cuts are scheduled to take effect on Friday unless a deal can be reached in Congress.
During an interview with Reuters TV, Vilsack said furloughs of meat inspectors, and the cascading impact on the meat industry, were unavoidable although shortages were unlikely to occur immediately.
"At some point, you're going to have shortages," said Vilsack. "The reality is there are going to be disruptions."
The White House says USDA's meat safety agency would have to furlough its 8,400 inspectors for the equivalent of 15 days to compile the savings required under the automatic cuts. But those days off could be structured in various ways.
Vilsack says USDA would try to minimize the impact on consumers and the meat industry. It will depend, he said, on "how many days we have to furlough and how we stagger those days."
It was the first time Vilsack mentioned staggering the furloughs, although officials have said the furloughs might occur on non-consecutive days.
A mass layoff of inspectors would shut down nearly 6,300 meat packing and processing plants because companies cannot ship meat that lacks the USDA inspection seal. The White House estimates the industry would lose $10 billion in production with a two-week shutdown.
Meat processors say the government is required by law to provide meat inspection and USDA should find other ways to save money and keep inspectors on the job.
Vilsack did not specify how furloughs at other USDA agencies might be structured. For example, the Agricultural Marketing Service generates prices used as benchmarks for livestock futures at CME Group Inc.
USDA personnel also perform key roles in inspecting exports of U.S. grains and cotton.
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