U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack still argues that some U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspection services will need to shut down if Congress does not act to prevent sequestration by March 1. Earlier this month, several livestock organizations, including the American Sheep Industry Association, challenged Vilsack's announcement that severe budget cuts would require the agency to temporarily furlough meat inspectors from some plants. The plants cannot legally ship meat without federal inspection, so the move would, in effect, close those plants causing widespread economic impacts.
Ag groups argue that federal meat inspectors are essential personnel, and that USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would need to find other areas from which to cut expenses.
In response to a letter from the American Meat Institute, Vilsack maintained that USDA has done all it can to find cuts elsewhere and to minimize the furloughs, but they will be necessary.
"Were sequestration to become a reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone as your letter suggests," said Vilsack.
"You are correct in your assertion that FSIS' governing statute imposes an obligation on the department to provide inspection," he wrote. "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."