Will Sequestration Bring Pork Processing to a Screeching Halt?

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack says the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) might have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks to meet the extensive budget cuts that are part of the sequester. This would, in effect, bring the U.S. meat industry to a screeching halt. How do pork producers feel about that?

What a week in Washington. As a vast divide separates the Republicans and Democrats on budget issues, The Hill is predicting a high likelihood that the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester will be implemented. The $85 billion in cuts looming on March 1 would run through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Federal workers, including meat inspectors, are expected to be furloughed as part of the fallout.  Food Safety News reported this week that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign food facilities and the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) might have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks to meet the extensive budget cuts. This would, in effect, bring the U.S. meat industry to a screeching halt.

American Meat Institute (AMI) President J. Patrick Boyle responded, via a letter to President Obama this week, saying that the U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services. Without inspection, under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act the production, processing or interstate distribution of meat, poultry and egg products is prohibited.

Supermarket News reports that industry groups ranging from agriculture, to food processors to grocery store and retail chains have reacted with shock and alarm. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Board issued a statement expressing disappointment in the proposed cuts. NCBA President and Wyoming cattle producer Scott George points out that such a move would impact approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide and would cost over $10 billion in production losses. He estimates industry workers would experience over $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices and food safety could be compromised.

George states, “Secretary Vilsack is using America’s cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency’s political wrangling with Congress. While we are certain the USDA contains other ‘non-essential’ employees, the secretary has chosen to announce the consequences of sequestration in terms of a furlough of FSIS inspectors, essentially threatening to close down all production, processing and interstate distribution of meat. This action has already cost cattle producers significant amounts of money with the downward slide in the futures markets caused by rampant speculation, with untold effect on producers through further regulatory uncertainty.

I’ve been watching discussions about this situation trend on Twitter.  Consumers and members of the food production community are both jittery and angry. How about you?  Do you feel that pork producers are pawns in a political game?  Shouldn’t our government be prioritizing the availability of our safe, affordable food supply?  Are you contacting your legislator?  Share your thoughts in the comment section here, or email lora.berg@penton.com.  We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds on www.nationalhogfarmer.com/.

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