The U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services, American Meat Institute (AMI) President J. Patrick Boyle told President Barack Obama in a letter sent to The White House this week as discussions about the potential impact of sequestration and possible furloughs of meat and poultry inspectors made headlines. Without inspection, meat and poultry processing plants are prohibited by law from operating.    

“As the possibility of sequestration becomes more real, so does the threat to the industry’s ability to provide a critical component of the food supply,” Boyle wrote, adding that USDA inspectors have historically been deemed “essential” personnel. He said that that for many years, the Office of Management and Budget has deemed essential those employees whose “activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials.” 

“In that regard, the mission statement on the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s website states: ‘The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged,’” he added.

Boyle noted comments made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week in which he said it may be necessary to furlough meat inspectors for up to two weeks, an action Vilsack estimated would cost the industry $10 billion and cost employees $400 million in lost wages.

“It is incumbent upon the secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspection services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act,” Boyle said. To read the complete letter, click here.

Despite those federal requirements to provide meat inspection, Vilsack wrote back to Boyle that FSIS' governing statute does impose an obligation on USDA to provide inspection. "However, our view of those authorities is that they allow for furloughs in order  to comply with budget and fiscal laws enacted by Congress. Unlike other budget scenarios, such as a short-term government shutdown, the exemption provisions of the  sequestration statutes do not include exceptions that would be applicable to FSIS inspection activities."