The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


March 2, 2013

Public might feel impact of sequester as furloughs hit public services


But meat and poultry slaughter and processing are among the country's most intensively regulated industries, requiring carcass-by-carcass inspections. A veterinarian makes sure the animal is healthy and the killing is done humanely; an inspector tests the flesh for bacteria and another makes sure the knife cutting the carcass is clean. All must be on the premises at all times.

That's why one furloughed inspector could shutter an entire plant during a shift.

The number of inspectors on an eight-hour shift could be one at a small operation or two dozen at a large one. Food safety officials predict 20 million hours of unpaid leave until Sept. 30.

"It's not that we're going to produce less-safe meat," said Janet Riley, a senior vice president at the American Meat Institute, the industry's lobbying group in Washington. "It's that we're going to produce less meat."

The institute said the food service should be able to pull additional inspectors from district offices or even Washington headquarters to keep plants open.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week he would try to stagger the furloughs. But he said the country's meat supply would be affected if even some of the 6,290 plants shut down a day or two a week, triggering spot shortages and pushing up prices.

Like other personnel-heavy departments, the food safety service did not have much wiggle room to prepare for the cuts. Bills are paid on a month-to-month cycle. By now, about 40 percent of this year's budget is spent.

This amplifies the cuts, which must be taken equally from every "program, project and activity," according to the sequestration law. Some managers have flexibility in these accounts, but not many, budget experts say.

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