KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Life is full of unexpected surprises and there’s nothing worse than a surprise that absolutely nobody wants…such as the current sequester. In early March, the US Dept. of Agriculture announced meat inspectors working within the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will be furloughed because of the recently triggered sequester. The only good news here is due to the comprehensive process the USDA must go through to furlough its meat and poultry inspectors, the furloughs weren’t activated immediately.

Jay Sjerven, senior editor of Food Business News, M&P’s sister publication, wrote that on March 5, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack affirmed that the sequester mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will result in a 5.1 percent spending cut in fiscal 2013 for each USDA program whose funding is categorized as discretionary. Discretionary spending totals about 16 percent of the overall USDA budget, Sjerven wrote.

Vilsack said initially the sequester will require each FSIS meat inspector to be furloughed about 15 days during the remainder of fiscal year 2013. Congressmen later determined that meat inspectors are essential employees and advised cutting funds elsewhere.

Vilsack answered it was now a question of whether there are funds appropriated in food safety to keep them on the production lines. At present, there are approximately 8,400 FSIS in-plant meat inspectors federal personnel stationed at approximately 6,290 federally regulated facilities.

Because FSIS meat inspection is funded as a discretionary program, Congress must appropriate funds annually to keep this program operating. FSIS meat inspection funding recently totals approximately $890 million a year. Eighty-seven percent of the USDA’s total food-safety budget was earmarked to employ meat inspectors, Vilsack said. Due to the way the sequester was written, no flexibility could be found to avoid furloughing FSIS meat inspectors, he added.

In an attempt to get more information on this disturbing news, I contacted FSIS for more details. I have heard grumblings since this news broke questioning the legality of withholding inspection: Can the Obama administration legally withhold meat and poultry inspection in the name of the sequester?

“Yes, in part because the overwhelming majority of our budget is devoted to inspectors and inspection activities and due to the sequester we will be forced to take into account furloughs,” answered a USDA spokesman. “The bottom line is what you said [to me earlier] — inspectors must be in plants in order for those plants to operate. So, no inspectors — no operation.”

A shutdown of meat and poultry plants during a furlough of inspection personnel could result in 11 furlough days (not 15, as originally speculated) – 11 days of lost production, the USDA spokesman said.

To give me a sense of how this might play out in different states, he explained that in Iowa, there are 351 FSIS workers, including inspectors, and 139 federally inspected plants; in Nebraska, there are 337 FSIS workers, including inspectors, and 110 federally inspected plants; in North Carolina, there are 486 FSIS workers, including inspectors, and 90 federally inspected plants; and in Minnesota, there are 252 FSIS workers, including inspectors, and 152 federally inspected plants.

So, where does industry go from here? Who’s to blame? Although the Obama administration is credited with coming up with the sequester idea, the Republicans in Congress also agreed to it. Describing and explaining the development of this sequester would be too lengthy for this column, but the bottom line is this: the current situation industry is facing is the result of the powers that be in Washington (the president and Congress) playing “chicken”—and neither party thought the other side would allow the sequester to ever happen. Industry and the millions of customers and consumers it serves daily deserves better from elected officials. So, unless someone, somewhere in Washington “pulls a rabbit out of the hat” to prevent this from happening, no inspectors will result in no operations for 11 days.

This is just plain stupid.