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Sequester could slow N.C. meat production

Add bacon and eggs to the list of things subject to the federal sequester.

Cheeseburgers, too.

Every slaughterhouse in the state must have a meat inspector on hand before it can process chickens, hogs or other animals. Certain meatpacking processes also need to be inspected in order to carry on operations.

Some of those inspectors work directly for the federal government. Others work jointly for the federal government and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state and federal governments share half the cost for those joint inspectors.

Furloughed federal inspectors and less money to pay for joint inspectors could mean that everything from liver mush for in-state consumption to hamburger patties packaged for overseas sales could be slowed down.

"That's going to back up the farm," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said Tuesday morning after sharing the looming problem with other members of the Council of State. Animals stuck on the farm mean higher prices for farmers and potentially higher prices for consumers.

Roughly two-thirds of the revenue in North Carolina's farm sector goes to meat producers, Troxler said. So, this rather big wrinkle in "protein production" could severely affect the industry.

It could be two or three months before the slowdown fully hits, he said, because federal inspectors must receive at least 30 days' notice before they are furloughed.

At the state level, the situation is more complicated. The federal sequester means less money to pay joint state-federal inspectors, but the Department of Agriculture doesn't have the authority to furlough them, Troxler said.

"I'd say that's getting to be an emergency," said Gov. Pat McCrory, who chairs the council. The governor asked to meet with Troxler and said his staff would look at ways to either help patch the loss of funding or give the Department of Agriculture more flexibility.

Troxler said the department was looking for ways to rotate inspectors to keep disruptions to a minimum. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should notify states of the exact scope of the cuts this week, he said.

Other state agencies will be feeling the sequester pinch as well. For example, Attorney General Roy Cooper said that joint federal-state Medicaid fraud investigators would be affected, and Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin said a state program that helps seniors navigate their different options under Medicare will lose funding.

Troxler said every state in the country would be affected by the meat inspection issue. As for North Carolina, he was not able to immediately put numbers on how many inspectors would be affected or what the potential dollar loss would be.

North Carolina has roughly 100 state-employed meat inspectors, according to the division that conducts inspections. That does not count inspectors who are federal employees.

Troxler said every farmer who raises livestock for meat in the state and every meat processing plant would be affected. There are roughly 190 slaughter and processing plants in the state. North Carolina is the No. 2 hog producer in the nation and No. 2 in poultry production, he said.

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