Sequester Meat Shortages Months Away, Says USDA Secretary

Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The sequester likely won't cause meat and poultry shortages for a while-thanks, in part, to union negotiations and USDA inspectors' lack of email access.

Furloughs to Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture could force meat and poultry plants to stop production-with no inspectors to approve products, they can't be sold-but today Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that those furloughs probably won't happen until later this year.

"We are looking at a several-month period, if you will, before a furlough will be imposed," Vilsack said, depending on negotiations with the inspectors' union.

A drawn-out notification process will prevent the furloughs from happening right away, Vilsack said.

"This week we will send out notices to the union reps that a furlough is possible, and one of the challenges is that not every one of our workers in this particular area has email, so we actually have to hand-deliver a letter or written notification to those employees. That has to be followed up … with oral conferences to take place with any employee who requests an oral confirmation-that will happen at the local level," Vilsack said. After all employees are notified, Vilsack said, USDA will negotiate with union representatives over how the furloughs will be implemented.

But if furloughs do happen, Vilsack warned their impact could be particularly severe.

That's because furloughs will be concentrated over just a few months this year. Inspectors will miss 11-12 days each between now and Sept. 30 (end of the fiscal year), Vilsack predicted, and the longer USDA waits, meat and poultry producers could feel a more severe impact over a shorter time frame. USDA has already projected that food-safety will be particularly hard hit by furloughs, as 87 percent of that account's budget goes to food inspectors and "support" for inspectors.

Republican members of the committee appeared perplexed that Vilsack hadn't begun the furlough process sooner, spreading them out over more time and lessening their effects. Vilsack replied that he couldn't start the process until President Obama issued his sequester order on Friday.

"If you have six months left to implement this, you have in essence a 10 percent reduction in your remaining resources. If you have three months, you have a 15 percent reduction," Vilsack said. "I think we'll have more than three months, but it won't be a lot more than three months, and that's one of the problems."

In other words, furloughs will begin sometime before July 1, though Vilsack wouldn't guess at how many days or months beforehand.