Furloughs of U.S. meat inspectors that could disrupt meat delivery throughout the country will probably be concentrated in July through September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Vilsack said furloughs of meat inspectors required under sequestration, or automatic budget cuts that took effect this month, will disrupt the meat industry. He said USDA will send furlough notices to meat inspectors this week, but it will be several months before they will occur because of the extensive preparations needed.
The furloughs, which could lead to spotty shutdowns of meat plants and meat shortages, would be one of the most visible effects of sequestration, he said. By law, processors cannot ship meat without the USDA inspection seal.
"We will do everything we can to minimize disruptions," Vilsack said at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee. "It will impact inspections."
USDA has said it would stagger the furloughs to minimize their effect on operations. "I don't think you're going to see a continuous furlough," Vilsack told lawmakers at a hearing on the state of the rural economy days after U.S. President Barack Obama signed the sequester order.
PLENTY OF WARNING TO MEAT PROCESSORS
The Obama administration says all 8,400 inspectors might be furloughed for a total of 15 days. Vilsack said the total was more likely to be 11 or 12 days.
The agency will need a substantial amount of time to deliver notices to inspectors, hold consultations and schedule furloughs, said Vilsack.
"We are looking at a several-month period, if you will, before a furlough could be implemented," he said. "The industry will have some notice of what will happen."
As a result, the furloughs could take place mainly in the final three months of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. "That's one of the problems," Vilsack said. One-third of USDA's 100,000 employees may be affected by furloughs.
"It's a process we have to follow," he told reporters. He said USDA was not trying to delay action in hopes that Congress would resolve the fiscal crisis and eliminate the furloughs.
The administration says furloughs of inspectors en masse would shut down meat packers and processors for two weeks and cost them $10 billion in production.
Meat inspectors are guaranteed 30 days' notice of a furlough, said the union that represents them. Inspectors could face a furlough of one day a week but not always the same day.
During the hearing, committee chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, chided the administration for "trying to scare the American people with worst-case scenarios."