Senator Chuck Grassley is leading a group of senators asking USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the department's discussion of furloughing meat inspectors due to the sequestration slated to begin March 1.
"Furloughing meat inspectors may shut down meat and poultry facilities and harm workers, farmers, and consumers. I find it hard to believe that reductions can't be made elsewhere in the department that don't impact health and safety. If the department believes it needs to go to these drastic measures, the public ought to know if other areas within the department are seeing the same kinds of cost-saving measures as something as important as meat inspectors," Grassley said.
The senators specifically ask for the clarification and the legal rationale for the claim that meat inspectors can be furloughed. In addition, the senators want to know how the department is handling budget cuts for travel, conferences and operating expenses.
"The President has done little to help prevent the cuts he suggested in the first place. Not to mention that he campaigned last fall on the fact that they 'will not happen.' His campaign style approach to averting the sequestration is unfortunate," Grassley added. "It's time for the President to join Congress to focus on the spending discipline needed to restore confidence in the economy."
The letter was signed by Grassley and Senators Thad Cochran, Deb Fisher, Mike Johanns, Pat Roberts, John Boozman, Saxby Chambliss, John Hoeven and Jerry Moran. A copy of the signed letter can be found here.
Meanwhile, Reuters today reported that Representative Michael Conaway (R-Texas) says USDA will likely implement a rolling furlough of meat inspectors, with temporary layoffs being spread out across the country and over time to limit the impact of the layoffs so that "no plant would be shut down." Laws bar plants from shipping meat without an inspection seal.
Conaway did say that the administration has not yet responded to his request for a written explanation of the meat inspector furloughs, however.
Meat inspectors must be given 30 days notice of a furlough. Thus, the impact of the furlough will not likely be felt for weeks if sequestration does occur.