USDA Spending Cuts May Put Meat Industry in Jeopardy

Packaged meat the supermarket

If $85 billion dollars of automatic spending cuts take effect at the end of February, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) may have to furlough, or temporarily relieve, one-third of its 100,000 workers. This could lead to a 15-day shutdown of meat-packing plants, causing a meat shortage.

With the aid of public funding, the USDA is responsible for providing qualified inspectors to investigate the cleanliness and safety of meat-packing plants and processors in compliance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Production Inspection Act. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the USDA, carries out this responsibility. With a shortage of available inspection workers, meat plants may be forced to close or halt production during the department’s “relief” or “furlough” time. This could lead to unprecedented meat shortages and price increases.

America’s meat and poultry industry isn’t happy with this announcement. According to Dan Murphy from The Drovers Cattle Network, the forced loss of inspectors, even for that short period of time, would mean that “more than 6,200 US meat and poultry plants would be forced to shut down, and losses could exceed an estimated $10 billion. Supermarkets might run out of meat, causing prices to soar.”

Joe Sanderson Jr., Chief Executive of Sanderson Poultry Farms, warned the furlough “would be a terrible situation for us.” The Mississippi-based company could face significant disruptions in their ability to process millions of chickens per week. “It would be an animal welfare issue and an environmental catastrophe for our industry,” he claims.

This budget cut wouldn’t just affect meat inspectors, but also cut resources from the WIC program, indefinitely cutting 600,000 women and children from supplemental food and nutrition assistance. The US Forest Service, an agency of the USDA, would also be affected, forcing them to shut down hundreds of national forests, campgrounds and picnic sites this summer.

The House’s Agriculture Committee chair, Rep. Michael Conway, warned the USDA of this proposed plan to cut inspectors, claiming that the decision is “impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers.” Although he didn’t suggest an alternative to the USDA’s plan, he did request “a detailed explanation of how the USDA plans to roll out its sequester cuts.”