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Meat Inspector Furloughs Would Be One Day a Week, USDA Official Says

Meat packers could be forced to close one day a week under the Agriculture Department’s unfolding plan to address the sequester’s budget cuts.

Elisabeth Hagen, the department’s undersecretary for food safety, said Wednesday it looks as though there will be 11 days of unpaid leave required to meet the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect March 1. The Office of Management and Budget estimates the Food Safety and Inspection Service will have to cut $52.8 million in fiscal 2013 spending. The one-day-a-week furloughs probably will start in mid-July and continue through Sept. 30.

Although the projected cut is 5 percent of the $1 billion budget, Hagen said the effect is magnified because it comes near the end of the fiscal year when there are fewer options for reducing spending.

Agriculture officials have rejected rolling furloughs that would allow some inspectors to remain on the job and slaughterhouses in different regions to remain open, Hagen told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Hagen said department officials believe the nationwide approach would treat all regions and markets equitably.

“To the extent that we are able, we intend to spread these furlough days out over non-consecutive days,” Hagen told Chairman Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala. “At this point, we are looking at furloughing everybody on the same day.“

Even with those efforts, Hagen told Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., that “at this point we’re looking at enormous economic disruption not only to the regulated industry but to people who work for the industry  . . .  if we have to furlough our entire workforce.”

She agreed with subcommittee members that not having meat inspectors on the job will have a significant economic effect on the meat and livestock industry and lead to higher prices for consumers. However, Hagen said food safety would not be compromised because no domestic meat or poultry can go to market without inspection.

Meat importers also will feel the effect of furloughs because inspections are required before the products can be sold in the United States, she added.

Subcommittee members with meat-packing, livestock and poultry interests spent much of the hearing trying to determine whether there was a way out of a sequester many lawmakers say they never expected to happen. President Barack Obama proposed it and Congress included it in legislation (PL 112-25) as a consequence if the White House and Capitol Hill could not reach agreement on ways to trim the budget deficit. A last-minute deal between the Obama administration and Congress on expiring taxes in January did not address the sequester.

At the hearing, Tom Latham, R-Iowa, asked Hagen if she had been instructed to make “things as painful as possible.” Hagen said no one had asked her to do that, noting that the FSIS budget is 87 percent personnel costs with few alternatives for areas to trim. Of the 9,750 FSIS workers, 8,678 are inspectors, people who test for pathogens and investigators who check for compliance issues.

Hagen and Alfred Almanza, FSIS administrator, said more than 150 positions at headquarters had been eliminated over several years and that they had slowed hiring for administrative and non-inspection jobs.

Latham and other subcommittee members repeatedly asked why FSIS could not designate inspectors as essential personnel not subject to the sequester. The federal government has used that method to keep employees on the job when Congress was at an impasse on budgets, they said.

Hagen said in that scenario there is the expectation that Congress will eventually provide funding to cover salaries. Under the sequester, money is taken away from the agency. By law, she said, the federal government cannot require people to work without pay or to spend money it does not have.

That prompted Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., to ask what FSIS would do if Congress passed legislation requiring the agency to keep meat inspectors on the job as essential workers. Yoder appeared to be alluding to language Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has said he plans to offer as an amendment to the Senate continuing resolution (HR 933) that would deem inspectors as essential personnel.

“We can’t have the flow of beef not being processed in a timely manner, and this is going to cause unforeseen consequences in the economy. You have to find a way to do it,” Yoder said.

“If Congress told us that we had to do something, we’d do what we’re authorized to do,” Hagen said. “We still can’t spend money that we don’t have. We still have to operate within fiscal law.”

Aderholt asked whether Hagen had sought to have FSIS included among the budget anomalies, or special exceptions, the White House submitted for appropriators to consider as they wrote a continuing resolution to fund government programs after the current CR (PL 112-175) expires March 27. Hagen said she had not.

After the hearing, Aderholt said he found Hagen’s response to that question interesting.

“I think that would have been an important aspect of trying to move forward, especially knowing that the Senate was working on a CR,” Aderholt said.

An anomaly would allow the department to move money “over to an area of greater concern. Certainly front-line inspection is of concern to everyone. The department and we understand the importance of food safety and how the public looks at it. I think it would be appropriate, under the circumstances that sequestration is an unusual thing we’re dealing with, to give them that flexibility.”

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