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Budget impasse could threaten meat inspections, White House warns

Feb. 12, 2013 - 12:05PM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER DOERING   |   Comments

WASHINGTON — The White House warned that meat and poultry inspections could be suspended for two weeks if a series of government spending cuts goes into effect in March, a move the agriculture industry said would hurt its producers and consumers.

The cuts to meat and poultry inspections are one of a series of automatic spending reductions, also known as sequestration, that would take effect on March 1 unless Congress acts. The White House said the sequester could lead to reductions in funding in several other areas including education, research and innovation, small businesses, and the mentally ill. A failure to act could leave the middle class “paying the price,” the administration cautioned.

The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has more than 8,000 inspectors, oversees 6,300 processing and slaughter plants. The sequestration would cause the furlough of inspectors for about two weeks, bringing the U.S. meat and poultry industry to a standstill. Federal law requires beef, poultry, pork and other meats to contain the USDA’s inspection seal before they are shipped.

The Food and Drug Administration also would be affected by the spending cuts. The Obama administration said the agency could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products. Overall, more than a dozen federal agencies handle food safety including FDA, which handles about 80 percent of the food supply, and USDA, which is in charge of red meat, poultry and eggs.

“These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E. coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume,” according to the Obama administration.

In a letter to USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the American Meat Institute said the department has a legal obligation to provide meat inspections even if sequestration took place.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the meat trade group, said the USDA estimated a shutdown could result in about $10 billion in production losses, a crushing blow he said would have a devastating effect on meat and poultry companies as well as their employees, consumers and producers.

“Rather than impose across the board furloughs that will lead to plant closures, it is incumbent upon the Department to examine the options available to it (like) suspending certain non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel within the 13 different offices (only one of which involves inspectors in plant) that make up FSIS,” said Boyle.

A two-week furlough could potentially create some problems for states such as Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of pork.

Cody McKinley, public policy director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said his industry can’t shut down “at the flip of a switch.”

For example, he said pork producers raise their animals to have a uniform weight and promise to deliver them at a certain time to the packing houses. A delay not only slows this well-oiled process but prevents meat from being delivered to grocery store shelves, which could result in meat shortages and higher prices.

“It is just a political ploy? If it is, well, that’s creating a lot of heartburn in the countryside, for sure,” said McKinley. “We really need to address this thing. A sow gestates for three months, three weeks, three days and we can’t guess what days (the inspectors are) going to take their furloughs. There will be repercussions to the farmer and the consumer and their pocketbooks.”

Todd Mortenson, former president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, said the last thing the government should do is mess with the country’s food supply. “I don’t think they’re that stupid, but I could be wrong,” said Mortenson, a livestock producer in Hayes, S.D. “I don’t think people would be very happy if they go to the grocery store and there are no proteins available.”

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Christopher Doering is with the Gannett Washington Bureau.

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