Amendment written to save USDA meat inspector jobs

Mar 25, 2013

Last Thursday, the House passed an amendment to avoid meat inspector furloughs that were slated to occur under the current across-the-board budget cuts.

Introduced by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), the plan is to redirect $55 million from other areas of the USDAs budget to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), essentially reinstating the funds cut under sequestration. The amendment cleared by voice vote, 73 to 26, during consideration of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past March 27.

“This has a direct impact on the private sector,” said Sen. Pryor, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, referring to the threat of FSIS furloughs, which would have temporarily shut down some meat plants.

In a House Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Elizabeth Hagen told lawmakers sequestration would mean 11 days furlough for all FSIS employees. That would include shutting down inspections of meat, poultry and egg operations during furlough days, affecting nearly 6,300 establishments. Hagen said furloughs would start in July and would be applied on “non-consecutive days to the maximum extent possible” for the rest of the fiscal year.

According to USDA letter, the loss of inspector hours could cost the meat industry as much as $10 billion in lost production.

According to a press release from Blunt, the bill, referred to as FY13 Agriculture Appropriations bill, places significant emphasis on maintaining research programs at land grant universities and funding competitive research programs such as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. This bill increases the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program by $26 million above last year.

The bill also provides valuable, low-cost financial opportunities to assist rural communities in areas such as low income housing, drinking water and waste disposal, and telecommunications infrastructure. These activities encourage economic development in rural America, and improve the quality of life for residents with limited resources.

The bill will protect private sector jobs by solving a funding gap for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). In doing so, the amendment protects Americans’ jobs at meat, poultry, and egg production facilities nationwide, Blunt wrote.

Without the Pryor/Blunt amendment, it’s estimated that the USDA projected food inspector furloughs would have closed nearly 6,300 food inspection facilities across America.

“Had inspection been halted, this would have resulted in a backlog of animals, shortened supply of beef to market, higher prices and harm to the futures markets,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Scott George, from Cody, WY. “By the Secretary’s own estimates, this would have equated to $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages, only compounding the issues faced by ranchers dealing with the worst drought in fifty years.”

Under sequestration the FSIS was expected to take a total cut of $52.8 million, or 5 percent of its budget. In that event, furloughs would have been required of all 9,212 employees of the FSIS, including 8,136 meat inspectors and others on the front line such as lab technicians. The furloughs were expected to be taken one day per week between July and the end of the fiscal year in September.

The bill also includes a provision that provides farmers who plant USDA approved biotech crops with the assurance that they may harvest that crop and sell their product in the marketplace. Lawsuits challenging things like the “environmental review” undertaken by USDA have resulted in challenges to already planted and approved crops, such as alfalfa and sugar beets.

Increased loan authority funding is provided for rural water and waste water systems, which will update aging infrastructure and provide safe drinking water to rural communities.

The bill was co-sponsored by eight Republican senators, with a primary goal to prevent federal agencies from furloughing certain essential government employees such as the meat-safety inspectors. The bill does go beyond meat inspectors, but uses a standard set during the 1990’s federal government shutdown to keep federal workers on the job if they perform duties that protect the safety of people or property. It gives department heads the ability to shift money or resources within their agencies to keep those essential employees on the job.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R- IA, had demanded legal justification by USDA for the furloughs. Grassley doesn’t believe the sequester is more important than the Office of Management and Budget directive that states safety, law-enforcement and health should be priorities to protect in the face of budget cuts. “There is nothing more of a top priority than to keep food safe,” Grassley said.

Grassley added, “If they follow the Office of Management and Budget, there isn’t going to be much furloughing and I don’t think there needs to be any.”

Blunt came out as a strong ag champion during his FY13 discussions.

“Agriculture supports 16 million jobs across America, and Missouri has the second highest number of farms nationwide,” said Blunt. “This bill provides much needed certainty for the nation’s agriculture programs, which touch the lives of every American, every day.”

While budget cuts are clearly a top priority, the potential furloughs were obviously a concern in more than just the protein production arena.

“One thing that the Senate got right was finding a solution for funding meat and poultry inspection that would avoid USDA inspector furloughs,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “The House should maintain this funding for USDA meat and poultry inspection to ensure that this critical consumer protection program can continue to operate.”

But while Food & Water Watch supported the inspection portion, they were critical of the remaining bill.

“Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R- AL) abdicated their responsibility by offering a stale spending bill from last year that is loaded with special legislative giveaways to big agribusiness companies. The heavy-handed and undemocratic process used to force the Senate to accept a deeply flawed proposal allowed votes on only nine amendments,” Food & Water Watch wrote in a press release.

The amendment is cosponsored by Blunt, Johanns, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jim Risch of Idaho and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor