Monday, February 11, 2013

'Sequester' budget cuts, inspector furloughs could mean temporary shutdown of meatpackers

Approaching spending cuts may shut down the meat industry for two weeks. The cuts, collectively called "the sequester," would take place March 1 unless Congress heads them off. Two-week furloughs for U.S. meat and poultry inspectors are slated to be a part of the cuts. Since federal law prohibits shipping meat without a U.S. Department of Agriculture seal of approval, the furloughs would effectively shut down the industry for two weeks, Charles Abbott reported for Reuters.

Janet Hook of The Wall Street Journal predicted the sequester will come: "Despite warnings about the threat to military readiness, education programs and activities across the government, both parties say that it is likely the deadline will pass without a compromise being reached and that the spending cuts will take affect at least temporarily."

One USDA official estimated the resulting production losses for the industry at $10 billion, Abbot reported. Employee pay for 8,400 inspectors accounts for most of the $1 billion USDA spends on meat safety yearly.

The American Meat Institute said USDA should keep inspectors working so plants can stay open and furlough other employees, as well as cut non-vital programs rather than "inflicting unnecessary hardship" on the industry, Abbott reports.

Others said there isn't much choice but to go forward with the furloughs: "There's not much we can do when Congress says to cut every line item by a certain percent," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a speech.

Legislation introduced by House Democrats would avoid the cuts by eliminating tax breaks, cutting farm subsidies and and  taxing millionaires; House Republicans want to replace defense cuts with "deeper" cuts to domestic programs, Hook writes.

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