Republican senators decried the "scare tactics" of the Obama Administration that it will be forced to furlough Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employees due to forced spending cuts set to take effect March 1, 2013. In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the senators state by law the U.S. Department of Agriculture is obligated to perform meat and poultry inspections for the safety of consumers.
The senators specifically ask for the clarification and the legal rationale for the claim that meat inspectors can be furloughed. In addition, the senators want to know how the department is handling budget cuts for travel, conferences and operating expenses.
“Furloughing meat inspectors may shut down meat and poultry facilities and harm workers, farmers, and consumers. I find it hard to believe that reductions can't be made elsewhere in the department that don't impact health and safety. If the department believes it needs to go to these drastic measures, the public ought to know if other areas within the department are seeing the same kinds of cost-saving measures as something as important as meat inspectors,” said Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa).
“The Administration should produce legal justifications and furlough plans to provide transparency to the American people for USDA’s implementation of sequestration,” added Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.). “The costs to farmers and ranchers, already hard hit by drought, will be enormous. USDA must explain whether it can cut costs and other operating expenses to protect the safety and availability of our food supply.”
In a letter sent by Vilsack in mid-February to the American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, and the National Turkey Federation, Vilsack stated, “[W]ere sequestration to become reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone.”
The letter asked for Vilsack to explain this assertion. The senators asked why USDA cannot use furloughs in other mission areas in order to keep FSIS inspectors on the job. "If you have received written legal opinions pertaining to sparing FSIS inspectors and furloughing other USDA employees instead, please provide a copy," the asked Vilsack.
Roberts and Grassley were joined by Senators Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), Deb Fisher (R., Neb.), Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), John Boozman (R., Mont.), Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), John Hoeven (R., N.D.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.).
Again Monday the White House reiterated that sequestration would put food safety at risk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products while FSIS may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks.
"These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E. coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume," the White House reported.
In addition the sequester would impact approximately 600,000 women and children who would be dropped from the Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) from March through September. At least 1,600 State and local jobs could be lost as a result.