Not only will the sequester create longer lines at airports as security inspectors become furloughed within the month, public safety will be effected online at the supermarket as the Food Safety Inspection Service begins to furlough much of its 10,000 person workforce for 15 days thanks to the gridlock in Washington under orders to reduce their budget by approximately $50 million in order to get through the next seven months.*
“We just can’t stop programs,” stated agency spokesman Brian Mabry. “People are saying, ‘Why can’t you just send home all the personnel and not the inspectors?’ Well, there is no way to get from here to there without that.” He also noted that the inspectors account for 87% of the agency’s $1 billion (normal) budget.
Meat and poultry slaughter and processing are among the most intensely regulated industries and require a carcass-by-carcass inspection. In addition, veterinarians are required to make sure that the animals are healthy and humanely killed. An inspector then tests the flesh for bacteria, while another ensures that the knife used to cut it is free of contamination.
“All must be done on the premises at all times,” added Mabry. “Several inspectors on an eight hour shift could be at a small operation, or close to two dozen at a larger one. As a result, even one furloughed inspector could close down an entire plant during a shift.”
This, however does not mean that the meat hitting the marketplace will be less safe, according to Janet Riley, a senior vice president at the American Meat Institute (the industry’s lobbying arm in Washington), “It’s that we are going to produce less meat, which means higher prices for consumers.”
In the meantime, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vislack stated that he would try to stagger the furloughs. However, “even if only a few of the country’s 6,290 plants shut down for a day or two per week, it could trigger spot shortages that will affect the retail price of meat.”
*Food Safety officials predict 20 million hours of unpaid leave through September 30.