Is Sequestration Comedy Or Tragedy For Meat Industry?

Buckeye Farm Beat

Early reaction from industry indicates furloughing federal meat inspectors won’t impact productivity.

Published on: March 4, 2013

Following the late news Saturday night I was about to turn off the television when the “Saturday Night Live” show opening came on the screen. It was an Obama impersonator talking about the sequestration cuts to the federal budget. I held off on pushing the “Power” button to see how they would handle it.

The gist of the routine was Obama bringing in the various federal workers who would be impacted by the cuts to give their take. There were some funny moments, like the Philadelphia public school teacher who gave a fist pump and an emphatic “Yes,” as she revealed she wouldn’t have to be facing her students in coming weeks. “Good luck reading Beowulf, you monsters," she said.

The Presidential comedian introduced various military personnel, the Village People, air traffic controllers. It wasn’t all that funny, but when it came to bringing in the meat inspector who would be furloughed, the Obama character just looked at the blood-stained apron he was wearing and the butcher’s cleaver he was carrying and said, “No, forget it. Get out of here.” The spurned character was waved off the stage to a big laugh.

It struck me because I called around last week to find out if people in the meat-processing industry were worried about federal meat inspectors being furloughed and the response was not a laugh, but there really was not too much concern at this point. Tyson Foods offered the following statement on Friday:

“It’s disappointing that the Administration and Congress haven’t been able to agree on needed cuts in government spending.  However, because meat inspection has historically been considered “essential” by the federal government, we’re optimistic there will be no interruption in this public health and safety function.  We do not expect any immediate impact on our business.

“Disrupting food inspection is a disservice to all consumers, including those who work in our plants, raise our cattle, chickens and hogs and invest in our company.  We’re working with industry, labor and consumer groups to help USDA meet its sequestration requirements while continuing to provide necessary public health and industry certification services. 

"We have also been considering measures we might take if inspector furloughs become a reality.   Once we receive more details from the USDA, we will begin to develop contingency plans.”

The Tyson source noted that news reports last week indicated USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said it could be months before a shutdown of U.S. meat plants would occur because of a furlough of meat inspectors.  Vilsack said work rules vary for USDA employees, who get from 30 to as many as 120 days’ notice of layoffs. According to those reports, USDA had not yet provided inspectors any notice. So a furlough cannot be implemented for at least 30 days. 

Another news story reported the Obama administration may institute a “rolling” furlough to keep meat plants open.  A member of the House Agriculture subcommittee reportedly said the timing and assignment of furloughs would be spread across the country to minimize the impact on processors.

Michael Hockman, chief of the Division of Meat Inspection for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said Ohio has 187 federally inspected plants. The Ruth packing plant in Sandusky is Ohio’s largest federally inspected facility with 4 or 5 inspectors on it line. Campbell’s Soups in Napoleon and Cooper Farms in St. Henry have 2 or 3 inspectors each. Other small operations have an inspector on specified slaughter days.

A spokesman for Cooper Farms in St. Henry offered the following comment, “No matter what, we will continue our production schedules as normally as the USDA and government will allow. While we hope it doesn’t happen, we will be prepared for the needed adjustments if they do.”

While Hockman could not say how a furlough would impact Ohio’s plants, he did note that in 2010 the state’s entire work force, including the meat inspection system, faced a statewide 8% budget cut which required meat inspectors to take a mandatory layoff for 10 “cost-saving days.” The cuts involved 100 employees covering 210 plants. They were spread out to minimize any impact. “None of the plants had to shut down and we were able to get to them with the remaining staff on a daily basis,” Hockman said.

The CEO of one the nation’s most prestigious steak houses confided to me he is not very worried about the impact of sequestration. He called it a “big bluff” and compared it to the failed strike by air traffic controllers.

Knowing how the chain of grain production feeds the American appetite for meat and in the process employs a huge percentage of workers across the country, I have to think we are right to laugh off any notion that the government would allow a bottleneck in the inspection link to slow down the flow of hamburger, nuggets and bacon. Still let’s hope this comedy routine doesn’t last long.