Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack faced criticism Tuesday from congressional lawmakers who said he has not done enough to avoid the expected furloughs of meat plant inspectors later this year as part of a governmentwide mandatory cut in spending.
Vilsack was at times defensive and faced a drumbeat of criticism largely from Republican representatives during a three-hour hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.
He told members of the panel it will be several months before meat and poultry inspectors are furloughed for a period expected to be 11 or 12 days. Still, he said, the department is taking the first step this week by sending out notices to employees notifying them that time off without pay could occur sometime before Sept. 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year.
The cuts would sharply curtail or halt meat inspections, resulting in $10 billion in production losses and more than $400 million in lost wages to employees, according to USDA. Federal law requires beef, poultry, pork and other meats to contain the USDA’s inspection seal before they are shipped. Without these necessary inspections, shipments to grocery stores would stop and prices for beef, chicken and other meats that have already been approved for sale on supermarket shelves would increase.
Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that USDA will work to minimize the disruptions, but he said: “No matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it there is nothing you can do without affecting frontline inspectors. This is not about creating grave concern among consumers. This is about being very truthful about the consequences of sequester, which is that it is going to disrupt production in these facilities.”
“It’s not something we want to do. It’s something we have to do,” said Vilsack, who pinned the final blame on the need to furlough inspectors on Congress’ inability to provide USDA with a better option.
The White House has repeatedly highlighted the prospect of cutting meat and poultry inspectors as part of a broader $85 billion in federal reductions known as sequestration that went into effect on March 1 after Congress and the White House failed to reach a deal to avoid them. The automatic spending cuts will take time to be felt throughout agriculture and the U.S. economy, giving Congress and the White House time to mitigate their impact.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has more than 8,000 inspectors, oversees 6,300 processing and slaughter plants. Vilsack said if the furloughs do occur, they would not be implemented all at once.
“What we’re going to try to do is maintain some degree of movement (of meat) to avoid a more significant disruption,” Vilsack said.
Lawmakers said even if the furloughs do not take place, the damage has already been felt.
The threat of a shutdown has “affected prices, caused concern among the financial markets, and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food service community,” said Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“We must find common-sense solutions without trying to scare the American people with worst-case scenarios,” said Lucas, who implored Vilsack to “manage the sequestration without a mass disruption to the rural economy.”
An email from a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service director this week appeared to show the agency was failing to consider alternatives to minimize the effect of the sequester in order to justify dire predictions from the Obama administration.
“Is it the policy of your department and within USDA to not use any flexibility that you may have in managing the sequester?” Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., asked Vilsack after reading part of the leaked email introduced at the hearing. “I’m hopeful that isn’t an agenda that’s been put forward.”
Vilsack, who told Noem he hadn’t seen the email, said that if USDA has any flexibility, “we’re going to try to use it to make sure we use sequester in the most equitable and least disruptive way.”