Food Safety Inspector Furloughs Worry Nebraska Ag

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A series of automatic spending cuts are set to begin on March 1 if Congress doesn't pass a budget.

The process is called "sequestration" and cuts spending across many federal departments including the USDA.

Nebraska livestock producers are speaking out after the US Secretary of Ag and the White House have said food safety inspectors could be furloughed to save money.

"To suspend us for two weeks... it might take us months and years to recover from this," says Nebraska Cattlemen President Dale Spencer.

Spencer says that without inspectors packing plants would have to stop operating.

"We're kind of under a lot of duress in the livestock industry anyway, with high feed prices and the drought," says Spencer. "Our feedlot industry is really experiencing a lot of red ink."

That would also mean cattle wouldn't be moving out of feedlots as quickly, creating a bottleneck in the industry.

"If the cow/calf guy needs the feedlot buying feeder cattle and feeding them and you think about feedlots sitting on a two week supply, because there's feedlots that are moving cattle every day to harvest," says Spencer.

But the sequestration deadline has been rolled back before, and ag leaders like Spencer think the furloughs are an empty threat since other laws mandate food inspection.

In a letter to President Obama the American Meat Institute says inspectors are essential personnel, and warns that production plant losses could amount to $10 billion and cost employees more than $400 million in lost wages.

US Senator Mike Johanns, a former ag secretary, says spending needs to be cut, but not in a politically charged way.

"Start in the secretary's office - start with a huge bureaucracy in Washington, that's where you should start," says Johanns. "Why you would go to food safety inspectors is beyond me."

Spencer agrees, saying Secretary Vilsack should be on ag's side first.

"I think he should be watching out for agriculture's best interest, beef producers' best interest, livestock producers' best interest and not to use us as possibly a political pawn in this game," says Spencer.

Some ag groups have suggested that a temporary halt in production could help the beef industry out because of a meat reserve, but Spencer says even a short furlough would negatively impact US consumers' ability to get inspected food.