Too Close For Comfort
As March 1 Deadline Nears, Officials Worry Furloughs Could Hurt Industry
Posted: February 19, 2013
Butchered meat hangs in cold storage at T&E Meats on Monday. Meat and poultry processors are concerned that if Congress fails to reach a budget deal, USDA inspectors will be furloughed. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Danny Stone cleans off a table after a day of butchering at T&E Meats on Monday. T&E Meats stands to lose thousands of dollars if USDA inspectors are furloughed next month. Those furloughs might happen if Congress fails to reach a budget deal by March 1.
As part of the impending sequestration — a package of government spending cuts that will take effect March 1 if Congress fails to act — the U.S. Department of Agriculture could furlough its meat and poultry inspectors.
With no federal inspectors, meat and poultry processors would be forced to shut down.
Though the situation has been threatened before, it hasn’t come to fruition.
In 2011, when budget negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House were at an impasse and a government shutdown became a real possibility, meat and poultry inspectors were considered an essential service, so they would not have been furloughed.
Joe Cloud, co-owner of T&E Meats, a city facility that slaughters and processes meat from local producers, hasn’t been terribly concerned about the situation — until now.
“I don’t think anybody really thought it might happen,” Cloud said. “The last couple of weeks, people like me [have started] to look around and say, ‘My goodness, this is real.’”
A USDA-certified inspector is on-site at T&E Meats’ Charles Street facility at some point every day. He checks paperwork, monitors meat temperatures and “has to literally touch and inspect every single carcass,” Cloud said.
If he has to shut down the facility for two weeks, it’ll cost him roughly $40,000 to $50,000 in lost revenues.
Plus, most T&E workers are paid hourly and live paycheck to paycheck. Leo Lopez of Harrisonburg, a butcher who’s worked for T&E for eight years, said he falls into that category.
“It’s our support, this job,” he said Monday while putting in some of the nearly 40 hours a week he normally works at the facility. “I think it’s going to affect everybody.”
Both the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council have written letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concern about the potential furloughs.
The Virginia Poultry Federation eagerly signed the NCC letter, according to federation President Hobey Bauhan.
“We can see very, very serious ramifications if USDA were to go through with such an idea,” Bauhan said. “It could really be devastating, not only to the poultry and meat industries but [to] consumers. … It’s essential that it not happen.”
If the furloughs do occur, that could result in higher prices on meat and poultry at the grocery store and a shortage of those items, he warned.
“You could see stores with empty meat cases for a period of time,” Bauhan said, noting that he hasn’t seen a response to that letter.
“Farmers raising livestock and poultry would have nowhere to send their animals and would have to shoulder substantial losses,” it reads. “With nowhere for livestock and poultry to go, animal care would become more challenging.”
According to the American Meat Institute letter, the furlough would cost the industry $10 billion and cost employees $400 million in lost wages. More than 500,000 employees work in meat and poultry processing plants nationwide, the letter states.
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