Across-the-board federal budget cuts could force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to furlough up to 6,000 meat inspectors for up to two weeks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a speech to the National Biodiesel Board.
The sequestration, an across-the-board cut in government spending, is set to go into effect on March 1 if Congress does not act.
"As soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down," Vilsack added, noting that removing inspectors even for a short period would affect several hundred thousand workers and would affect the supply of meat and eventually consumer prices as well as the turmoil it would cause livestock producers.
The U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services, American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle told President Obama in a letter sent to The White House this week. Without inspection, meat and poultry processing plants are prohibited by law from operating.
Boyle added that USDA inspectors have historically been deemed 'essential' personnel. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has, for years, deemed essential those employees whose "activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs and hazardous materials."
Federal agencies will not furlough employees until April, should automatic budget cuts take place, an Obama administration official said Thursday.
OMB Controller Danny Werfel told the Senate Appropriations Committee that union negotiations would start on March 1, if sequestration hasn't been averted, and federal employees would not receive furlough notices until mid-March.
Asked if food inspectors could be exempted from sequestration, Werfel said it would be impossible because 88 percent of the Food Safety Inspections Service's budget goes toward salaries. He added that because food manufacturing plants cannot legally operate without inspection, many would be forced to temporarily shut down if the threat of sequestration becomes reality.
The White House estimated about $10 billion in losses for the more than 6,200 affected plants if that happened.