A coalition of more than 30 meat, poultry and grocery organizations on Monday submitted a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concerns with the possibility of furloughing the nation's federal meat, poultry and egg products inspectors in the event sequestration goes into effect.
Groups say the sequester – automatic government spending cuts set to take effect March 1 – will limit funds available for food inspection and send USDA meat, poultry and egg inspectors on a 15-day furlough.
"Because of the importance of federal inspection to the production of meat, poultry and egg products, we do not believe furloughing FSIS inspectors to be an appropriate response to sequestration within the framework of the federal meat, poultry and egg products inspection laws. It certainly would not be in the public interest," the groups noted in the letter.
Without inspectors, per government rules federal establishments cannot produce meat, poultry or egg products, shuttering production plants and putting hundreds directly employed by federally inspected plants on temporary leave.
The White House weighed in, too, noting that if a sequester takes effect, up to 2,100 fewer food inspections could occur, "putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production." These reductions could also increase the number and severity of safety incidents, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume, the White House says.
Groups also reminded Vilsack of when the federal government has shut down due to lack of appropriations, FSIS inspectors were among the "essential" federal employees who stayed on the job. FSIS's plans for a potential shutdown in April 2011, for example, declared FSIS inspectors "necessary to protect life and health" and "essential to the nation's food safety operations."
"We fail to see how employees performing such a critical function as to be exempted from a full government shutdown should be furloughed to make up a budget shortfall," the groups' letter said.
"We recognize that sequestration presents significant challenges that require USDA and all other federal government agencies to make difficult decisions to prioritize resources," groups concluded, "but cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government's budget deficit. We urge USDA to examine all options available to meet its obligations under sequestration while upholding its commitment to ensuring that American consumers have access to the safe, wholesome and nutritious protein sources they have come to expect from the nation's meat, poultry and egg products industries."
Click here to read the full letter.