Letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vlisack - FSIS Furloughs and Sequestration

Letter

By:  Mike Conaway
Date: Feb. 20, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Representative K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for answers on how the U.S. Agriculture Department plans to implement its sequester cuts.

The agency announced a few weeks ago that it may furlough USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors if sequestration goes into effect March 1. As the secretary has not made public how the agency will continue to comply with the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Production Inspection Act's requirements to inspect meat, Rep. Conaway asked for a thorough analysis.

"I am concerned that your plan to furlough FSIS inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers. … This industry and American consumers depend on the services provided by FSIS inspectors to ensure a safe and healthy food supply," Rep. Conaway wrote in a letter to Secretary Vilsack today.

The USDA has said that production shutdowns would affect about 6,290 plants, costing more than $10 billion in production losses and $400 million in lost wages. Limited meat supplies would likely drive up prices, impacting families' ability to put food on the table.

The full text of the letter is below.

February 20, 2013

Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700

Dear Mr. Secretary,

I am concerned about your recent comments on how the sequester will impact the agricultural community. I understand that the sequester demands difficult across-the-board-cuts within each program at the USDA, and I do not fault you for making tough decisions. However, our nation's agricultural producers need you to manage these cuts in a way that protects them from as much harm as possible.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has an obligation to inspect the nation's meat and poultry for safety under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Production Inspection Act. I am concerned that your plan to furlough FSIS inspectors is impractical and misguided, as it could prevent FSIS from meeting its responsibilities to packers, processors and consumers.

On Feb. 8, you stated that the FSIS would be forced to "furlough over 6,000 food inspectors for two to three weeks". You also acknowledged that the affects of this decision would have severe implications on the industry, including the closure of inspection plants, the potential to compromise the safety of nation's meat supply, lost wages for several hundred thousand employees, and rising meat prices for consumers. USDA also confirmed "the impact could force smaller businesses and merchants out of business. Industry workers would also be furloughed resulting in over $400 million in lost wages".

This decision, if implemented, could disrupt the flow of commerce and the lives of millions of Americans, starting with meat and poultry industry and ending at America's dinner table. According to the American Meat Institute, furloughing FSIS inspectors is estimated to cost $10 billion in production losses to the industry. This industry and American consumers depend on the services provided by FSIS inspectors to ensure a safe and healthy food supply.

In order to more fully understand your rationale, I am requesting a detailed explanation of how the USDA plans to roll out its sequester cuts and a thorough analysis of how the USDA will continue fulfill its legal obligations under FMIA and PPIA should these cuts be implemented.

I would appreciate your response by Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.

Respectfully,

K. Michael Conaway
Member, House Committee on Agriculture
Chairman, Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management