WASHINGTON – There is no way to avoid it — US Department of Agriculture meat inspectors working within the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will be furloughed due to the recently triggered sequester. The effects, however, will not be immediately felt because of the process the USDA must go through to furlough the inspectors.

Testifying before the House Committee on Agriculture on March 5, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, affirmed the sequester mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and that took effect March 1 will require a 5.1 percent reduction in spending in fiscal 2013 for each US Department of Agriculture program whose funding is categorized as discretionary, which would include some key food safety and nutrition programs.

The discretionary spending reductions for the entire fiscal year will have to be made during the remaining seven months of the year, which would effectively reduce March-September spending on the programs by an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent. Discretionary spending accounts for about 16 percent of the total USDA budget.

Committee members pressed Vilsack on his earlier comments indicating the sequester will require each FSIS meat inspector to be furloughed about 15 days during the remainder of fiscal year 2013. The congressmen asserted meat inspectors were essential employees as meat processing plants may not operate if inspectors are not present, and they asked if there wasn’t flexibility to keep them on the job in meat plants across the country and cut from somewhere else.

Vilsack said it was not a question of whether meat inspectors were essential or not. He agreed they were. It was a question of whether there were funds appropriated in their program areas, in this case, food safety, to keep them on the production lines.

There currently are about 8,400 FSIS in-plant meat inspectors and other front-line federal personnel located at approximately 6,290 slaughtering and processing plants and import houses and other federally regulated facilities.

FSIS meat inspection is funded as a discretionary program, which means Congress must appropriate funds each year to operate the program. Funding for FSIS meat inspection recently has been at about $890 million a year. Vilsack said 87 percent of the USDA’s overall food safety budget was earmarked to employ the meat inspectors, and because of the way the sequester was written, there was virtually no flexibility that may be found to avoid a furlough of meat inspectors.

There are some USDA discretionary program areas and offices that have several budget line items that may provide at least some flexibility in targeting which functions may be less damaging to cut than others. But the USDA’s food safety budget was almost exclusively used to employ inspectors. Furloughs, Vilsack said, was the only recourse to realize the required spending reduction.

Vilsack also pointed out the furlough process itself was complicated and may result in increased production disruptions at meat plants toward the end of the fiscal year. This was because under law, the USDA must give a 30-day notice to unions representing the meat inspectors, and to each meat inspector individually, of the intent to initiate the furlough process. Only after that notice is delivered and a designated process of addressing individuals’ concerns completed will the USDA and meat inspector unions be able to negotiate how the furloughs will be implemented. This may push the actual furloughs toward the end of the fiscal year.