A group of Senators led by Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Tuesday issued a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack questioning the department's discussion of furloughing meat inspectors due to the sequestration.
The March 1 deadline for the sequester – a series of across-the-board spending cuts – is closing in on legislators hoping to reach a compromise. Earlier this month, Vilsack warned of the cuts, mentioning that meat inspectors could potentially be furloughed for 15 days – a prospect Grassley says will harm workers, farmers and consumers.
"I find it hard to believe that reductions can't be made elsewhere in the department that don't impact health and safety," Grassley said in a press statement. "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."
In the letter sent Tuesday, the senators ask for the clarification of the claim that meat inspectors can be furloughed. In addition, the senators ask how budget cuts for travel, conferences and operating expenses are being handled.
"The Administration should produce legal justifications and furlough plans to provide transparency to the American people for USDA's implementation of sequestration," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said. "The costs to farmers and ranchers, already hard hit by drought, will be enormous. USDA must explain whether it can cut costs and other operating expenses to protect the safety and availability of our food supply."
The White House said earlier this month that up to 2,100 fewer food inspections would occur, "putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production."
Roberts says that lost production amounts to about $10 billion, and the cuts would impact 6,290 meat, poultry and egg establishments. Further, he says industry workers would experience more than $400 million in lost wages.
Signing the letter, along with Grassley and Roberts, are Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Deb Fisher, R-Neb., Mike Johanns R-Neb., John Boozman, R-Mont., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.