Senate approves measure to avert USDA meat-inspector furloughs

The Senate adopted an amendment to a spending bill that would avoid furloughing U.S. meat inspectors as part of budget cuts, lowering the risk of disrupting plants run by companies including Tyson Foods Co.

The measure, adopted today in a voice vote, allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shift funds among programs to avoid pulling inspectors from meatpacking plants that require federal oversight to operate. The Senate is expected to pass the spending bill today, sending it to the House.

The possibility that plants may shut for 11 days from July through September drew protests from the American Meat Institute and other industry groups. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the amendment should avert furloughs.

“The hope would be that we wouldn’t need furloughs” after shifting funds from other programs, Vilsack told reporters yesterday. “We have said all along that we have inadequate resources,” a position the Senate is recognizing by adopting the amendment, he said.

The Senate spending bill would fund the federal government through Sept. 30. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan yesterday said he expects his colleagues to accept the Democrats’ spending measure as-is.

“As long as they hit the numbers, we’re good to go,” Ryan told Peter Cook on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” program. “I have every reason to believe that that’s the case.”

Furlough Notices

The USDA began sending out notices to union representatives that furloughs are possible after the budget-cutting measure known as sequestration officially took effect March 1. The mechanism is part of a 2011 deficit-reducing agreement that requires $85 billion in across-the-board cuts to government agencies this fiscal year. Vilsack has argued that without the amendment, the department has little flexibility to avoid furloughs.

Meat, poultry and egg processing plants are prohibited from operating without the presence of federal inspectors. Having to furlough inspectors for 15 days would cost the industry more than $10 billion in production losses, and workers at meat plants could lose more than $400 million in wages, Vilsack said in a Feb. 5 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland. The length of the furloughs was adjusted later as the USDA found other ways to save money in its food inspections.

Funds Transferred

Under the amendment, $55 million would be transferred from USDA school-equipment grants and maintenance budgets for buildings and facilities to the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which pays inspectors.

“This amendment solves a very pressing issue that impacts each and every American,” Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who co-sponsored the measure with Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, said in a statement.

The USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, eggs and poultry products, with about 8,400 personnel inspecting the nation’s 6,300 slaughterhouses and processing plants. The Food and Drug Administration handles other products that account for about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Each year, contaminated food kills about 3,000 people and sends another 128,000 to hospitals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bloomberg News

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