how your sausage gets made

Will the Sequester Really Halt Meat Production?

At least the cows would be happy.

At least the cows would be happy.Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Bear with us while we talk food politics for a sec. Even if you aren't thinking much about the sequester — those looming government budget cuts that are set to happen Friday if Congress can't come to some sort of agreement — there is one bit of possible fallout that could affect the food world, big-time: The White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have floated the scenario that cutting the USDA's budget (something that would happen as a result of the sequester) would leave the agency with "no choice" but to give food-safety inspectors unpaid leave, which would in turn halt meat inspections, which would in turn mean no fresh meat for anyone. Not good!

The first thing to know is that Obama is forecasting all sorts of dire scenarios as a way to get Congress to act. (And if you followed the fiscal cliff fiasco in December, you know that Congress doesn't tend to act in these scenarios until the absolute last possible moment because apparently Congress is made up of procrastinating teenagers.) But think about what happens if inspections really do shut down: Per Vilsak, "As soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down." So: production halts; farmers are stuck with a surplus of useless meat, dairy, and eggs; restaurants and grocery stores can't restock; and consumers (a.k.a. "us") are suddenly forced to go vegan.

As you might guess, the GOP isn't into this plan, and the meat industry is calling bullshit on this end-of-days-style scenario, saying that the Federal Meat Inspection Act "impose[s] an obligation on the Department - to provide inspection services." They point out that even if spending cuts do go into effect, the USDA can make the necessary cuts by furloughing nonessential employees.

And it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Agriculture Secretary actually halts inspections. We all know what kinds of horrible things can happen when meat safety systems shut down — you end up eating horsemeat and vultures.

White House: Sequestration Would Mean Big Cuts to Food Safety Inspections [Food Safety News]
Vilsack: With Sequester, USDA Would Have “No Choice” But to Furlough Food Safety Inspectors [Food Safety News]
Industry: Government is Obligated to Provide Meat Inspection, Even With Sequester [Food Safety News]
GOP warns USDA against furloughing meat inspectors to deal with sequester

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