USDA says meat plant shutdowns inevitable in budget cuts

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U.S. meat packers and processors face short-term shutdowns because of impending federal budget cuts but the administration will try to minimize the impact on the industry and consumers, the Agriculture Department said on Tuesday.

The automatic cuts, also called sequestration, are due to take effect on Friday because Congress and the White House are unable to agree on other ways to reduce the federal deficit. USDA says the cuts would force it to lay off its 8,400 meat inspectors for 15 days to produce the savings ordered for its food safety agency.

Early this month, the White House raised the prospect of a mass layoff, which would shutter the meat industry for two weeks. Plants cannot operate without USDA inspectors.

A House subcommittee chairman, Texas Republican Michael Conaway, said on Tuesday that USDA might order furloughs on non-consecutive days to mitigate their effect and keep plants running.

"Specific furlough dates for (inspectors) have yet to be determined but there is no question sequestration will have an adverse effect on food inspection services," said USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe. "USDA is taking steps to minimize the impact of the furloughs on consumers, our employees and the meat industry."

Even so, there would be some shutdowns, USDA said, because there is no way to stretch the workforce to cover all plants while reducing outlays enough.

The administration estimates some $10 billion in production would be lost if inspectors were laid off en masse for two weeks, or their agency's share of cuts. Stores and restaurants could run short of meat temporarily.

The USDA did not respond to questions about how it would approach possible furloughs at its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other things generates prices used as benchmarks for livestock futures at CME Group Inc. The USDA has not mentioned AMS in its comments about the sequester.

Conaway said the administration has not replied in writing to his request for information about meat inspections and the White House budget office "owes us an explanation." The budget office was the first to raise the prospect of a furlough of all 8,400 inspectors and a resultant meat industry shutdown.

Although the spending cuts are due to take effect on Friday, it could be weeks or months before the meat industry is directly affected. Meat inspectors are guaranteed at least 30 days' notice of a furlough.

"This is a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.

Up to one-third of the USDA's 100,000 employees may be affected by furloughs. The USDA says the cuts would deny food aid to 600,000 pregnant women, new mothers and infants and also force closure of hundreds of Forest Service campgrounds, picnic areas and visitors' centers during the spring and summer.

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Nebraska  |  February, 27, 2013 at 07:08 AM

According to Mr. Vilsack's letter to the AMI, the rules are set forth in the 1985 Budget Control Act. That means the Clinton Administration had the same experience in that term.....and no one remembers furloughed air traffic controllers and food inspectors. Team Clinton proved themselves much more capable, compassionate and worthy of our respect than the current team is threatening.

wi  |  February, 28, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Why can't they suspend pension payments to retired government workers in order to save money? Why furlough present day employees and upset the "applecart" to such an extreme when other options are available?

Wi  |  February, 28, 2013 at 03:28 PM

Why can't layoffs start from the top down? Seems to me if the top people who make the most were cut first savings would add up faster and less people would need to be laid off!

Illinois  |  February, 28, 2013 at 03:33 PM

Al Capone would be proud. What guarantee do we have if we cough up a ton of extra tax money these whining old women won't still treat us to poor service or no service? Man, these hostage negotiations are never rewarding. Sure wish we could depopulate the entire gub'mint and start over with better stock, something with some genetic quality. Oh well, stuck with intellectual culls, I guess.

Nostrobamadamus was wrong    
March, 01, 2013 at 01:15 PM

O the inhumanity of sequester. Says right here pregnant women will starve and they can't even go camping. This must be the end of the world. I have to type pretty fast before the power goes off for the final time and the earth stops turning. O goodbye cruel world. Goodbye...... ......Wait a minute. The witching hour is passed and we're all still here. Maybe doomsday is tomorrow then? That's it they probably meant tomorrow is when it all comes crashing down. Or maybe the next day?

MA  |  March, 02, 2013 at 10:10 PM

Holy Smoly, the sky is falling...again...when the milk price is never enough, we still show up for work, even if we can't get paid...we just found out that we are working for 19% of parity...the rest of the world should share the pain and show up for work with a pay cut. If there is work to be done, layoffs and furloughs make no sense. Employees need to swallow hard, take a pay cut, and keep this country working. This includes administrators, bureaucrats, and Congressional leaders(?). If they don't want to work, we'll get find somebody that does....maybe some Mexicans!!

March, 03, 2013 at 12:57 PM

Right on Henry. If pampered government workers impacted by sequestration cuts want to walk off the job in a huff that would be fine. Better than fine, actually. There are about 20,million unemployed Americans desperate to get back to work, even at some cushy do-nothing government timewaster. Better still, lots of those unemployed people are over 55, so they won't be sucking from the government payroll forever - maybe just long enough to close out those obsolete and redundant government programs in a responsible fashion? This sequestration deal could end up being the best thing that could have happened to cull the dead wood off the government dole. I just keep liking it better and better!

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