Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) announced today that she has sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting more information regarding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plans to furlough meat and poultry inspectors. Current law requires the federal government to cut $85 billion through a budget-cutting process known as sequestration by the end of the fiscal year. The letter, cosigned by seven other Republican senators, calls into question recent comments by Secretary Vilsack suggesting that USDA must furlough inspection employees, regardless of statutory duties to provide health and safety inspections.

“Nebraskans expect their leaders in Washington to cut out-of-control spending, line-by-line. Yet they also know government has core duties to fulfill, such as ensuring the health of consumers. Instead of jeopardizing the safety and availability of meat and poultry products, or hurting Nebraska’s workers and facilities, USDA should focus on finding ways to implement the required cuts that minimize their negative impact on our food supply,” Fischer said. “Budget cuts should happen, and they will happen – it’s just a matter of making priorities.”

USDA has suggested that it will shut down meat and poultry plants for as many as 15 days, costing more than $10 billion in production losses and reducing the availability of meat and poultry products.

A copy of the signed letter is available by clicking here, and the plain text is below.

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February 26, 2012

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

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

You have recently discussed with farm groups and media outlets the impact of sequestration, as mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, will have on the Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In particular, you have mentioned on numerous occasions the likely furlough of meat and poultry product inspectors.  Of course, USDA is required to perform these inspections under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspections Act (PPIA).  The health, safety, affordability, and availability of meat and poultry products are of the utmost importance for all Americans.  Without inspectors, meat and poultry product production facilities will be shut down, and products will stop flowing to grocery store shelves. 

Farmers, meat processors, poultry product processors, and consumers will all be severely hurt if USDA fails to have inspectors on the ground performing their required duties in accordance with FMIA and PPIA.  The comments you have made in the press, to farm groups, and at the recent USDA Outlook Forum, suggest you view there is a rigid legal duty to furlough all employees at USDA without concern for USDA’s statutory duties, or for the health  and safety of consumers.  Since that is apparently your view, please respond to the following questions and requests for further information:

1)    What is USDA doing to reduce spending in the areas of travel, seminars, conferences, and operating expenses in light of sequestration?  Please provide an accounting of the savings USDA expects to save from these areas.

2)    Please provide any written legal opinions you have been provided by USDA attorneys, the White House, or the Office of Management and Budget, indicating you have the ability to disregard the requirements under FMIA and PPIA and furlough inspectors.

3)    Please provide your plan for furloughs in the office of the USDA Secretary due to the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

4)    In a letter you sent in mid-February to the American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, and the National Turkey Federation, you stated, “[W]ere sequestration to become reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone.”  Please explain this assertion.  In addition, please explain why USDA cannot use furloughs in other mission areas in order to keep FSIS inspectors on the job.  If you have received written legal opinions pertaining to sparing FSIS inspectors and furloughing other USDA employees instead, please provide a copy.

We are confident you have the ability to implement sequestration at USDA without jeopardizing the ability of Americans to feed their families and seriously hurting U.S. farmers, meat and poultry production facilities, and workers in those facilities.  We look forward to receiving a response to the above questions and information requests.  Due to the time sensitivity of this matter, we would appreciate receiving your response by no later than March 4, 2013.