Sequestration could affect beef plant

Farm Forum

Mandatory federal spending cuts set to go into effect in March could force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to furlough up to 6,000 meat inspectors for up to two weeks, shutting down meat packing plants across the country, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned in recent speeches.

The across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, would cut the budget for the Food and Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for ensuring food safety at beef, pork, poultry and other processing plants.

Vilsack said it would affect all plants where inspectors are stationed.

The Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen has USDA inspectors on site.

The USDA spends about $1 billion a year on meat safety and has 8,400 inspectors at 6,290 slaughterhouses and processing plants, according to Reuters.

The shutdown would plunge the meat industry into chaos and raise consumer prices, according to a story by Jerry Hagstrom in Agweek Magazine.

The possibility of sequestration has caused the futures price on beef to decline, according to Bloomberg.

Inspectors are crucial to meat packing operations. Packers and processors are not allowed to ship meat without the USDA’s inspection seal.

Nearly $10 billion would be lost during the two-week furlough, a USDA official told Reuters. Consumers can expect to see shortages and higher prices on meat during that time.

The sequestration “is horrible policy,” Vilsack said at a meeting of the National Biodiesel Board in Las Vegas on Feb. 7 and reported on by Agweek Magazine.

“As soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down,” Vilsack said. Removing inspectors even for a short period would affect several hundred thousand workers, he said.

In a speech in Washington, D.C., Vilsack said the spending cuts, totaling $1.2 trillion, are more serious than a normal spending reduction because of the tighter time frame involved in meeting targets for a fiscal year that would be almost half over. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is studying how it would handle reductions, which would affect nutrition programs as well as food safety and research, he said. Food stamps are exempted.

Each year, contaminated food kills about 3,000 people and sends another 128,000 to hospitals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.