WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture is notifying union representatives of meat inspectors that furloughs are possible, although the process will take several months, according to news reports.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that USDA was looking at a “several-month period” before furloughs could be implemented because workers must be notified ahead of time. Vilsack estimated that furloughs could last up to 12 days and will be staggered, according to a Bloomberg report. A 15 day-furlough of meat inspectors could cost the meat and poultry industry more than $10 billion in production losses and workers could lose more than $400 million in wages.

Until USDA settles on a plan of action, large meat processors such as Cargill and Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, Inc., remain in a holding pattern.

“We really don't know how any potential meat plant inspector furlough will impact our facilities because we have not seen a plan from USDA,” said Mike Martin, Cargill spokesman. “We do not believe there will be any impact until sometime in April due to inspector union requirements for a 30-day notice prior to any furlough taking place.

“We believe there are other non-essential personnel at USDA that should be considered for furlough before meat plant inspectors,” he added. “This is because there is a statutory requirement to provide meat plant inspectors as a priority. We are hopeful the federal government resolves this situation before any meat plant furlough is implemented.”

Worth Sparkman, spokesman for Tyson Foods, said the company is hopeful there will be no interruption in meat inspections, and that Tyson does not expect any immediate impact to its business.

“Disrupting food inspection is a disservice to all consumers, including those who work in our plants, raise our cattle, chickens and hogs and invest in our company,” Sparkman said. “We’re working with industry, labor and consumer groups to help USDA meet its sequestration requirements while continuing to provide necessary public health and industry certification services.

“We have also been considering measures we might take if inspector furloughs become a reality. Once we receive more details from the USDA, we will begin to develop contingency plans.”