Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2013 12:00 PM
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack this week told the U.S. House Agriculture Committee that furloughing Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors cannot be avoided under budget sequestration.
Those across-the-board reductions under the 2011 Budget Control Act went into effect March 1, requiring cuts of 10 to 12 percent of USDA's remaining fiscal year budget.
Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, said a Feb. 27 Office of Management and Budget memo stated agency responsibilities under sequestration were to protect the agency's core mission to serving the public to the greatest extent practical.
"Wouldn't you agree providing the essential services that protect public health and provide wholesome and affordable food is consistent with that directive?" he asked.
"It is, Mr. Chairman, so long as there's adequate appropriations to provide that assistance, and that's the problem," Vilsack answered.
The sequestration is structured so that every account in the agency has to be reduced by the same percentage, and in the food safety area, there are very few accounts, he said.
Eighty-seven percent of FSIS' budget is front-line inspectors and the support system for those inspectors, he said.
"No matter how you slice it, how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the front-line inspectors," he said.
The agency doesn't have the luxury of transferring money from other areas as it would under normal circumstances, because there is no money to transfer based on the way the sequester is structured, he said.
"We're not talking about a lapsed budget; we're talking about a cut. There's simply not enough money to pay inspectors," he said.
USDA's initial estimate that meat inspectors would have to be furloughed for up to 15 days has been reduced to 11 or 12 days, Vilsack said.
Lucas said committee members' constituents have voiced concerns that statements about the furloughs have affected prices, caused concerns among financial markets and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail food service community, and he asked about the odds of the inspectors all being furloughed at the same time.
Vilsack said there are 6,263 facilities with FSIS inspectors and the problem is not just one of circumstance and flexibility.
"The reality is you have to be careful how you structure this because some of the facilities are dependent on the work of other facilities," he said.
In addition, some facilities are reducing their operating hours due to the overall economy, so it's a complicated process of determining how and under what circumstances inspectors are furloughed, he said.
Plus, USDA has to bargain with the union that represents the inspectors in determining how the sequester will be structured, he said.
"So if the sequester act trumps the food safety act, which is basically what you're saying, do your union labor agreements trump the sequester act?" Lucas asked.
"No," Vilsack said.
Food safety inspection laws also require that meat companies cannot privatize inspections; they have to be done by USDA officials. And that is subject to having the appropriations and resources to be able to pay for those inspections because of anti-deficiency issues, he said.
"So it's not a matter of trumping; it's a matter of sequencing. If you don't have the money to pay for these people, you can't have people on the line. And that's where we are," he said.
Due to required notice to inspectors, union negotiations and required follow-up oral conferences with inspectors who request it, it would be three or four months before furloughs could be implemented, he said.
Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Steve King, R-Iowa, pressed Vilsack on whether USDA was seeking any flexibility from the Office of Management and Budget, through legislation or recommendations it might make for the continuing resolution to preserve meat inspection.
Vilsack replied USDA's focus has been on implementing the sequestration, what the agency would do if the continuing resolution to carry over the previous fiscal year's budget is not continued, the extension of the farm bill and a new farm bill and reiterated that his hands are tied on meat inspections.
"Just give us the resources. That's a choice you all are making," he said.
No, that was the choice recommended by the president, King said.
Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., asked if the furloughs give the American people reason to be concerned about food safety.
It's not so much about safety where USDA is concerned, it's more about supply, the production of food and the effect on prices, Vilsack said.
But plants are not going to see continuous furloughs that would cause a complete shutdown of the pipeline, and USDA will try to maintain some degree of movement to avoid significant disruptions, he said.
Committee members also questioned Vilsack on why USDA didn't begin the process earlier when it was aware of potential furloughs, saying they could cause more harm if they all get pushed into the final months of the fiscal year. They also asked if USDA could have cut spending elsewhere earlier in the fiscal year to offset the potential impact on inspections.
Vilsack said USDA couldn't begin the process until the president signed the sequestration order and that furloughs would have been higher had USDA not implemented savings earlier in the year.