03/13/2013 02:46 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

USDA Inspector Furloughs Could Cause Meat Shortages This Summer

* Furloughs expected to begin in mid-July, total 11 days

* Furlough days will be sporadic, none in succession

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - All U.S. meat inspectors will be furloughed on the same days as the federal meat safety agency shaves its budget by $53 million under automatic spending cuts, Agriculture Undersecretary Elizabeth Hagen said on Wednesday.

Hagen told a House Appropriations subcommittee the furloughs, expected to total 11 days in all with none in succession, were likely to begin in mid-July. She said a nationwide furlough on the same day would treat all regions of the country equally.

Her testimony put a sharper focus on the Agriculture Department'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 two-week shutdown of inspections. Meat plants are not allowed to operate without USDA inspection. There could be spotty meat shortages from a slowed-down production system in the summer and early fall.

All 9,212 meat safety workers will be furloughed at the same time, including 8,136 "front-line" workers which includes inspectors, lab workers and investigators, Hagen said.

Subcommittee chairman Robert Aderholt, Alabama Republican, said he hoped for a "reasonable and responsible way" to minimize the impact of sequestration. Hagen echoed Vilsack in saying there was no way to avoid furloughs because almost all the safety agency's budget was dedicated to front-line work.

Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder said there was "healthy skepticism" that a 5 percent cut in funds would cause such draconian cutbacks. And Republican Tom Latham, from the hog and cattle state of Iowa, asked, "Have you been told to make it as painful as possible?"

"Absolutely not," replied Hagen.

USDA is looking for additional savings, she said, and if they are found, the number of furlough days could be reduced.



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