Get ready for a meat shortage

The Agriculture Department warns that the looming budget sequester could idle federal inspectors of meat and poultry plants for two weeks.

By Aimee Picchi

Packaged ground beef (© Frank Bean/Uppercut RF/Getty Images)It’s something shoppers don’t give a lot of attention to when buying hamburger or chicken breasts: the little circle that verifies the meat has been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But without that stamp, meat can’t be sold by packers and processors.

That’s bad news because the looming U.S. government sequester means meat and poultry plants won’t be able to receive their inspections, potentially leading to a shortage of everything from prime rib to chicken wings.

The sequester — slated for March 1, unless Congress finds a way to sidestep the start of $85 billion in mandated federal budget cuts — would keep meat inspection personnel from going to work for as many as 15 days, according to a letter from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the U.S. Department of Agriculture released and was reported by Reuters.

Such a “nationwide shutdown of meat and poultry plants during a furlough of (meat) inspection personnel” could lead to $10 billion in production losses, Vilsack wrote.

Meat and poultry industry groups are alarmed at the prospect, with organizations such as the Poultry Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sending a letter to Vilsack earlier this month.

Their letter, which asks that the USDA avoid furloughing its inspectors, notes the shutdown would have wide-ranging effects.

“Farmers raising livestock and poultry would have nowhere to send their animals and would have to shoulder substantial losses,” it reads. “And, most alarming, American consumers could face their first widespread shortage of meat, poultry, and egg products in generations.”

Vilsack didn’t say when the furloughs would begin, although he told USDA employees earlier this month they’d get at least 30 days notice, according to Reuters.

Meat production isn’t all that would be affected. Other layoffs by the Agriculture Department would mean 600,000 low-income women and infants would be cut from the WIC program, which supplies food and nutritional education, Reuters notes. About 9 million pregnant women, new moms and their children use the program.

The Forest Service would also close 670 of its 19,000 recreation sites, probably during spring and summer, and cut 35 workers from its law enforcement force.


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