Sequester could be felt locally
WORTHINGTON -- With Congress facing yet another looming deadline -- this time to avoid sequester and billions of dollars in budget cuts -- the potential impacts to the public are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Sequestration, if not avoided by tonight's midnight deadline, would cut approximately $85 billion from the annual federal budget of $3.6 trillion.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't immune to those budget cuts. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking at the 2013 Ag Outlook Conference last week in Arlington, Va., said 5 percent to 6 percent of his budget would be slashed if the sequester occurs, affecting "virtually every line item."
Those line item cuts include reductions to the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees meat inspectors at every meat and poultry processing facility in the country. A spokesperson with FSIS in Washington said Wednesday if sequestration kicks in, budget cuts to the agency will need to be absorbed by Sept. 30, the end of the federal government's fiscal year.
Just how the FSIS might handle the budget cuts remains uncertain. Talks on Capitol Hill have ranged from enacting rolling furloughs to an across-the-board, two-week furlough for meat inspectors and other FSIS employees.
"The only way we can absorb a cut of this magnitude is by impacting the people who work in the Food Safety area of USDA, and we all know that when we do that, it doesn't just impact those workers," Vilsack said at the Feb. 21 conference. "It impacts all the processing facilities and plants and production facilities across the country."
Vilsack wants Congress to give the USDA flexibility in determining where the cuts can be made, to prevent departments like the FSIS from extensive cuts that could cripple the meat processing industry for weeks.
On Tuesday, Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chair of a House Agriculture subcommittee on general farm commodities and risk management, announced that rather than face crippling cuts, a rolling furlough could be implemented.
At JBS in Worthington, approximately 20 meat inspectors check pork product and issue USDA-inspected seals on everything that leaves the plant for human consumption. If the meat inspectors are placed on furlough, processing plants would be forced to shut down.
Cameron Bruett, a company spokesperson based at JBS' home office in Greeley, Colo., said commenting on just how those furloughs would impact the Worthington plant -- and other JBS facilities across the country -- would be "pure speculation at this point."
"We just don't have any good guidance from the USDA on how they would attempt to meet their requirements (for food inspection) under the sequestration," Bruett said.
If one or two meat inspectors are furloughed at a time in any one processing facility, the plants could continue to operate. If the furloughs are done all at once, it would essentially shut down every meat and poultry processing plant in the country.
"Those inspectors are critical to that plant, to all our plants," Bruett said. "We hope there is some sort of agreement that allows them to work. It's totally out of our control -- it's an unfortunate situation."
Bruett said JBS remains hopeful that Congress will "do what's right for our nation's food supply," and said the company will do what it can to mitigate any impact.
"We just have no idea what's going to happen," he added.
The USDA says any potential cuts or furloughs are an economic issue rather than a food safety issue.
In a statement issued to the Daily Globe Wednesday afternoon, the USDA said since federal law mandates inspection of meat, poultry and egg products, production will shut down for the furlough period, impacting approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide and costing more than $10 billion in production losses.
The USDA also stated that industry workers would experience more than $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices for products.
Mark Halbe, vice president of sales for PM Beef in Windom, said he finds it troubling the USDA would threaten cuts to the Food Safety Inspection Service without notifying meat processing facilities.
"FSIS has always treated us with 30 days' notice if there is going to be a change, and the FSIS and USDA haven't given us any indication that something is going to happen," Halbe said. "I am very troubled with the communication happening politically and not directly through us at the plants."
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley issued a statement Tuesday that was also critical of Vilsack's comments about furloughing meat inspectors.
"Furloughing meat inspectors may shut down meat and poultry facilities and harm workers, farmers and consumers," Grassley said. "I find it hard to believe that reductions can't be made elsewhere in the department that don't impact health and safety. If the department believes it needs to go to these drastic measures, the public ought to know if other areas within the department are seeing the same kinds of cost-saving measures as something as important as meat inspectors."
Grassley is leading a group of senators who have asked Vilsack to explain his plans for USDA spending cuts in travel, seminars, conferences and operating expenses, as well as planned furloughs in the office of the USDA Secretary.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.