WASHINGTON – Industry groups registered their concerns about the possibility of furloughing federal meat, poultry and egg products inspectors.

March 1 is the deadline for lawmakers and the White House to reach a deal on deficit reduction and government spending. Sequestration resulted from a bipartisan agreement to match any increases in the debt ceiling with cuts to government spending. The automatic spending cuts were supposed to be an incentive to reach a deal to cut the deficit. In the absence of an agreement, sequestration will go into effect leading to deep cuts to federal spending.

The National Chicken Council, along with 37 organizations representing various aspects of animal agriculture, livestock and poultry producers and other stakeholders in the food industry, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlining their concern that deep spending cuts will negatively impact federal inspection of meat, poultry and egg products.

"We understand USDA is considering implementing a sequestration plan that would result in furloughing all the Food Safety and Inspection Service's [FSIS's] meat, poultry and egg products inspectors for 15 days," the groups wrote. "Because of the importance of federal inspection to the production of meat, poultry and egg products, we do not believe furloughing FSIS inspectors to be an appropriate response to sequestration within the framework of the federal meat, poultry and egg products inspection laws. It certainly would not be in the public interest."

The groups also noted that Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors were among the "essential" federal employees exempt from a government shutdown in 2011.

"We fail to see how employees performing such a critical function as to be exempted from a full government shutdown should be furloughed to make up a budget shortfall," the letter continued.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, wrote to Vilsack and President Obama in defense of sparing federal meat inspection from furloughs. USDA said meat poultry inspectors could be furloughed up to two weeks under sequestration. But US processing facilities cannot operate without inspections.

“We agree with the assessment that furloughing inspectors would have a profound, indeed devastating, effect on meat and poultry companies, their employees, and consumers, not to mention the producers who raise the cattle, hogs, lamb, and poultry processed in those facilities,” Boyle said. “AMI respectfully disagrees with the Department’s assertion is that, in the event of sequestration, the furloughs referenced are necessary and legal. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act [the Acts] impose many obligations on the inspected industry, which we strive to meet. Those Acts, also however, impose an obligation on the Department – to provide inspection services.”

Instead, Boyle suggested the agency could consider other options, such as suspending non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel.

“Such an approach would enable FSIS to meet its obligations under a sequestration scenario and satisfy its statutory obligation to provide inspection pursuant to the Acts,” Boyle concluded. “By doing so the Department would avoid inflicting unnecessary hardship on the more than 500,000 people who work in the meat and poultry industry and the more than one million livestock and poultry producers whose livelihoods also depend on those plants operating, and would also disruption of supplies to the 95 percent of Americans who make meat and poultry a nutritious part of their diets.”