Ag Policy Blog

Meat Inspector Furloughs Remain a Budget Battle

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The Senate plan to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year spends just over $1 billion on the Food Safety and Inspection Service, but USDA indicates it would take another $52 million to avoid furloughing meat inspectors at the agency.

Some Republicans have ramped up criticism of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over sequester. Former Ag Secretary and current U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska sent Vilsack a blistering letter on Monday in which Johanns question why Vilsack chose not to request some funding flexibility at FSIS to avoid furloughs. Johanns noted Vilsack did so for other agencies at USDA to the tune of about $100 million.

"It is not my intention to suggest that any of these priorities are unimportant, but why would the Administration have failed to submit a similar request in order to prevent the harmful consequences of furloughing meat inspectors, as outlined in your letter?" Johanns wrote. "This lack of effort seems to suggest there is no interest in resolving the issue. Instead, it seems that the threat of inspector furloughs is simply part of the Administration's broader messaging efforts to make the sequestration seem as painful as possible."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, had demanded legal justification by USDA for the furloughs. Grassley doesn't buy the argument that the sequester trumps the Office of Management and Budget directive from a several months ago that safety, law-enforcement and health should be priorities to protect in the budget. "There is nothing more of a top priority than to keep food safe," Grassley said.

Grassley added, "If there follow the Office of Management and Budget, there isn't going to be much furloughing and I don't think there needs to be any."

Vilsack has argued food safety won't be jeopardized, but work at packing plants could be delayed.

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The Senate Appropriations Committee did not make changes to the funding bill that would boost FSIS beyond the point of requiring inspector furloughs, according to USDA.

A release issued Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee would fund FSIS at just over $1 billion for the full fiscal year. The committee doesn't make any comments in its report whether that would protect FSIS from sequester, or give USDA flexibility to avoid furloughing inspectors.

The appropriations bill -- a continuing resolution, or "CR" -- is expected to come to the floor in the Senate on Wednesday. The House CR did not deal with meat inspectors. It's expected there will be at least one major amendment on the Senate floor to fix some of the issues with sequester, likely giving more flexibility to departments on where to make cuts.

The argument put forward by Vilsack has been that 87% of the FSIS budget involves front-line meat inspectors so furloughs at packing plants will take place, disrupting the packing industry.

But an FSIS budget document put together last year cited an expected $8.9 million cut with an expected total agency budget of $995 million to do its job for the year. FSIS would also show a $12.9 million decrease in spending due to implementing new methods to inspect poultry facilities.

Moreover, the budget document shows higher payroll for the agency in Washington, D.C., than the top four states for meat inspector costs combined. Georgia, Texas, California and North Carolina combine for $218 million in FSIS payroll while D.C. accounts for $230 million. The D.C. payroll accounts for just under 25% of the $995 million cited in the FSIS report.

Keep in mind, USDA said it needed $52 million more in savings to keep from furloughing inspectors.

FSIS FY 2013 budget document: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/…

Johanns' letter: http://www.johanns.senate.gov/…

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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