UPDATE 1-USDA details some furlough plans; horse slaughter ban mulled

Wed Mar 13, 2013 5:30pm EDT
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* Furloughs for meat inspectors expected to start mid-July

* Total 11 nonconsecutive days

* Lawmakers oppose horse slaughter, no USDA decision

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - All U.S. meat inspectors will be furloughed on the same days as the federal meat safety agency, a top USDA official said, leading to spotty meat shortages in the summer and fall as automatic spending cuts shave $53 million off the agency's budget.

Agriculture Undersecretary Elizabeth Hagen told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that the furloughs, expected to total 11 days before the end of September, were likely to begin in mid-July. None of the days would come consecutively, she added.

Hagen said the nationwide same-day furloughs were designed to treat all regions of the country equally.

Her testimony put a sharper focus on USDA's plans for carrying out the furloughs. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers last week that the furlough days would not be consecutive, to minimize disruption to the meat industry.

The Obama administration says meat packers and processors would lose $10 billion in production if there was a 2-week shutdown of inspections. Meat plants are not allowed to operate without USDA inspection. There could be spotty meat shortages from a slower production system in the summer and early fall.   Continued...