Beef, chicken prices to rise if gov’t furloughs meat inspectors

USDA says shutting down meat-packing plants would limit supplies and lead to higher prices. (AP)

WASHINGTON – The meat industry will face some trouble if sequestration takes effect.

Department of Agriculture inspectors could be furloughed for up to 15 days, meaning meatpacking plants would have to intermittently shut down and there could be less meat in grocery stores.

A White House memo released late last week also said that one consequence of the federal budget cuts set to take place on March 1 would be 2,100 fewer food facility inspections by the Food and Drug Administration, “putting families at risk and costing billions in lost food production.”

“Federally inspected meat and poultry plants can’t operate without inspectors,” says Mark Dopp with the American Meat Institute, a national trade association.

If a USDA inspector isn’t present at a meatpacking plant, by law the plant can’t operate.

Meatpackers and processors are required to have the USDA’s inspection seal before shipping beef, pork, lamb and poultry meat, according to Reuters.

Furloughing inspectors would effectively shut down the entire industry for weeks, leading to a significant increase in meat prices and sparsely stocked shelves.

USDA said the furloughs could impact approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide and cost roughly over $10 billion in production losses. Lost wages could total $400 million. The shutdowns could limit meat supplies and lead to higher prices, the department said.

“We’re talking about more than 500,000 employees, unemployed, not to mention the impact on the livestock producers and poultry growers,” says Dopp, who added that a number of companies could go out of business if sequestration takes effect.

The Agriculture Department has an entire agency devoted to the inspections and much of that agency’s budget goes to inspector salaries.

While most food safety problems aren’t found until after people get sick, a reduced number of FDA inspections would mean less vigilance overall and could have an impact on public health, advocates say.

The American Meat Institute is asking the USDA to devise a contingency plan – one that would, if necessary, furlough employees other than inspectors.

“There simply has to be a way to find the money to keep those inspectors in those facilities,” Dopp says.

The sequestration cuts, postponed by the recent “fiscal cliff” deal, are the punishment for the failure of a 2011 deficit supercommittee to reach an agreement.

The White House and congressional Democrats are hoping to find a way to avert the cuts, while some congressional Republicans have signaled that they will not oppose them.

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2013 by WTOP and the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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