Commentary: Not too late to turn back now

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Finally. Somebody’s making some noise about the impact of the sequestration-driven budget cuts, and how they would affect meat and poultry industry producers and processors.

A threatened two-week layoff of federal meat inspectors is a “misguided way” to reduce federal spending and jeopardizes government’s duty to ensure a safe food supply, a key lawmaker said this week.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the furloughs might be unavoidable under automatic spending cuts if the sequester goes through on March 1. USDA officials have not said when those furloughs might occur, but said the department would give at least 30 days’ notice to employees. Vilsack is expected to testify before a House Agriculture Committee hearing on rural economic conditions next Tuesday, three days before the cuts would take effect.

Without federal inspectors, of course, the more than 6,200 U.S. meat and poultry plants would be forced to shut down, and losses could exceed an estimated $10 billion. Supermarkets might run out of meat, causing prices to soar.

That has House leadership worried that both the industry and consumers would suffer.

“I am concerned that your plan to furlough (meat) inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers,” Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, wrote in a letter to Vilsack.

Conaway asked for a detailed explanation of how the USDA would carry out budget cuts of about $2 billion and how the department would keep the meat production from being severely curtailed.

“Ranchers and farmers need you to manage these cuts in a way that protects them from as much harm as possible,” his letter stated.

Meatpackers and processors have argued that federal inspectors should be considered “essential personnel” who need to stay on the job during any government shutdown. Vilsack acknowledged in a Feb. 12 letter that, although furloughs are “the least desirable option,” there was no other way for USDA to reduce spending on a magnitude necessitated by the sequester.

Assessing the impact

If the mandatory budget cuts take effect, of course, the impact would extend far beyond meat inspection. Up to one-third of USDA's 100,000 employees could be furloughed. The Forest Service might have to shut down hundreds of campground and picnic sites. As many as 600,000 low-income women and children would be dropped from the WIC Program that provides supplemental food and dietary advice.

Would meat plants really have to shut down for two weeks? Hardly.

Here in Washington state, budget cutting that resulted in mandatory furloughs for various government employees—set set to equal 3% of their total annual compensation—has been handled by parceling them out over time, reducing the work week, cutting back on the hours per day employees work, and so on. No state offices were forced to shut down; no services were abruptly simply cut off for two weeks; no employees were sent home and told to stay there for the next fortnight.

That said, all the fear-mongering about the sequester is probably a good thing. Maybe we ought to consider more of a doomsday scenario in which an entire industry closes up for two weeks at a time. Maybe that would put the insanity of a manufactured crisis into perspective if we did the hard calculations that would result from simply allowing the government’s second-largest department to close its doors for a couple weeks.

Because such a result would be catastrophic. The industry would lose billions in revenue. Prices would likely would climb to unacceptable levels. Market share for meat and poultry products would likely be eroded, maybe permanently.

All this because lawmakers are essentially playing chicken with the economy. The crisis we face is entirely one created, not by market conditions or unavoidable catastrophe, but because our elected leaders continue to put playing politics above their duty to serve the people.

There’s nothing in those last two paragraphs that hasn’t been said many times before, and much more eloquently.

But I take heart when lawmakers like Rep. Conaway, who ordinarily fall into line with the mantra of cut, cut, cut when it comes to domestic spending, start talking about the real-world impact of slash-and-sequester politics.

You don’t need to be a political junkie to recognize that with all the challenges we face—economically, politically and socially—we don’t need the people we’ve elected sitting around dreaming up new ways to endanger our security and our safety.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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