* Meat plants must close if USDA furloughs inspectors
* Timing of furloughs, other USDA cutbacks uncertain
* USDA chief to testify on Tuesday at House hearing
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The threatened layoff of all U.S. meat inspectors for two weeks is a misguided way to cut federal spending and flouts the government’s responsibility to assure a reliable food supply, a key lawmaker said on Wednesday.
Without federal inspectors on hand, the 6,290 U.S. meat and poultry plants would have to halt operations and would lose an estimated $10 billion in production. Some grocery stores could run short of meat and prices for meat could shoot up.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said repeatedly the furloughs might be unavoidable under automatic spending cuts scheduled for March 1. The USDA has not said when they might occur, but it would give at least 30 days’ notice to employees.
“I am concerned that your plan to furlough (meat) inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers,” wrote Texas Republican Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee overseeing crops and risk management.
Conaway asked for a detailed explanation of how the USDA would carry out overall budget cuts of about $2 billion and how it would keep the meat supply moving. Ranchers and farmers “need you to manage these cuts in a way that protects them from as much harm as possible,” he said
Vilsack was expected to testify on Tuesday, three days before the cuts would take effect, at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on rural economic conditions. It would be the first opportunity for lawmakers to ask him directly about the USDA’s plans.
Meat packers and processors say food inspectors should be counted as “essential” personnel who need to stay on the job during a government shutdown, which was their status in the past. Vilsack said in a Feb. 12 letter that, although furloughs are “the least desirable option,” there was no other way to satisfy the impending cuts.
“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,” wrote Vilsack.
If the budget cuts take effect, up to one-third of USDA’s 100,000 employees might be furloughed, the USDA says. The Forest Service might close hundreds of campground and picnic sites, while 600,000 poor women and children would be dropped from a program that provides additional food to them.