WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. agriculture secretary said it may be necessary to furlough meat inspectors for two weeks due to the sequester, but the cutbacks may be less drastic.
Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, said the budget cuts due to sequestration might put meat inspectors off the job -- and unpaid -- for two weeks, but meat industry representatives wrote letters to the White House pointing out meat and poultry processing plants are prohibited by law from operating without inspections.
In a letter to President Obama, Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute wrote "the U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services."
"As the possibility of sequestration becomes more real, so does the threat to the industry's ability to provide a critical component of the food supply," Boyle wrote, adding USDA inspectors have historically been deemed "essential" personnel.
However, Colin Woodall of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association told The Beef Magazine he talked to USDA staff that said instead of going to 15 consecutive days off, they might do one to two days a week of furloughs for a period of weeks. In addition, because of work rules, the inspectors must get notice before furloughs are made, so instead of furloughs beginning March 1, they might occur in April or later.
Woodall says his Washington office staff talked directly with Vilsack, the Food Safety Inspection Service, and House and Senate members, but Congress is in recess.
Vilsack is scheduled to testify at the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday.