The White House released a warning on Friday announcing that the looming sequestration could lead to a two-week shutdown of the country's meat industry, as the administration could be forced by budget cuts to furlough every U.S. meat and poultry inspector for up to 15 days.
Because factories need inspection approval before they send meat out for consumption, a lack of inspectors would mean no meat, poultry, or egg products could be processed until the employees went back to work.
In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, meat and poultry trade associations said on Monday that the furlough could lead to the "first widespread shortage of meat, poultry, and egg products in generations." Also on Monday, the American Meat Institute, which lobbies on behalf of the industry, issued a strongly worded statement denouncing the USDA's threat of an inspection shutdown. AMI president and CEO Patrick Boyle noted in the letter that the shutdown would cost the industry billions of dollars in lost sales. He continued by implying that it would be illegal to halt inspections for any period of time:
The meat and poultry statutes impose a legal obligation on the Secretary to provide inspection services. To that end, it is incumbent on the Secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspection services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act.
Yet just days later, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack re-affirmed the fact that the USDA would have to furlough inspectors if sequestration proceeds. In a letter to the industry, Vilsack wrote that the cuts would "the last option," but said that if the USDA's budget is slashed, the department would have "no choice but to furlough its employees."
Are we heading toward a situation that will make the dreaded "global bacon shortage" of last fall look like dinner at meat-crazy St. John restaurant in London?
The best way to avert it? Avert sequestration.