USDA will likely furlough meat inspectors

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The Agriculture Department has not found a way to meet the requirements of sequestration and avoid furloughing meat inspectors, said Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.

"Based on the way the sequestration is structured it will impact food inspection," said Vilsack during a March 5 hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture.

 

Sequestration requires across the board cuts to all accounts and USDA only has a few safety accounts, said Vilsack. Within safety accounts, 87 percent of the budget is frontline inspectors and the support system for those inspectors.

"No matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the frontline inspectors," he told the committee.

Currently, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has more than 8,000 inspectors and monitors more than 6,300 plants. Vilsack said all of these inspectors potentially face a furlough.

According to USDA estimates in a Feb. 5 letter (.pdf) to the Senate Appropriations Committee, sequestration cuts to meat inspectors could result in $10 billion in production losses and workers could lose up to $400 million in wages because meat, poultry and egg processors are prohibited from operating without the federal inspectors being onsite.

While he is unable to shuffle funds to prevent furloughs and delays to meat inspections, Vilsack said "the inspections are very, very important and we will do everything we can to minimize the disruption"

Another concern of Vilsack's is that furloughs will take months to put into effect. Agriculture must first notify employees and their union representatives of potential furloughs and then provide a chance for employees to have oral conferences on their furlough, a process he says could take months.

The longer this process takes, the shorter the time frame these inspectors can be furloughed in the remainder of the year. Vilsack said that limiting sequestration to 6 months would equate to a 10 percent reduction in remaining resources, while limiting it to a 3-month span is essentially a 15 percent reduction.

"I think we may have a bit more than 3 months but it won't be a lot more," he said, "and that's one of the problems."

For more:
- go to the hearing page (includes archived webcast)

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