By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Nine U.S. senators are asking USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for the legal rationale for furloughing meat and poultry inspectors due to the budget sequestration.
They also want to know how USDA is handling budget cuts in other areas.
Farmers, processors and consumers will be severely hurt if USDA fails to have inspectors performing their required duties, the senators said in a letter this week to Vilsack.
Under law, USDA is required to perform inspections, and without inspectors, meat and poultry production facilities will be shut down and products will stop going to grocery store shelves, the senators said.
They point out Vilsack's own statements suggesting a rigid legal duty to furlough all USDA employees without concern for USDA's statutory duties or for the health and safety of consumers.
Beth Levine, a spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said March 1 Vilsack had not yet responded to the Feb. 26 letter and there is no law requiring him to respond.
Grassley would like to see USDA's rationale for taking these drastic measures when it seems reasonable that reductions could be made elsewhere that don't impact health and safety, she said.
"I find it hard to believe that reductions can't be made elsewhere in the department that don't impact health and safety," Grassley said in a press release.
If the USDA believes it needs to go to such 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, he said.
The letter to Vilsack was also signed by Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Deb Fisher, R-Neb.; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; John Boozman, R-Ark.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
The senators asked Vilsack to respond to the following questions and requests by no later than March 4.
* What is USDA doing to reduce spending in the areas of travel, seminars, conferences and operating expenses in light of sequestration?
* Provide any written legal opinions USDA has from USDA attorneys, the White House or the Office of Management and Budget indicating the ability to disregard statutory meat inspection requirements.
* Provide USDA's plan for furloughs in Vilsack's office.
* Provide an explanation of why it would not be possible for the Food Safety and Inspection Service to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone, as asserted by Vilsack.
* Explain why USDA cannot use furloughs in other mission areas in order to keep FSIS inspectors on the job and provide a copy of any legal opinions pertaining to sparing FSIS inspectors and furloughing other USDA employees instead.
USDA responded to Capital Press' questions on the issue with a response Vilsack gave to Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and chair of the Senate Ag Appropriations Committee. In the letter, Vilsack said the across-the-board spending cuts would require furloughing meat inspectors for up to 15 days, resulting in roughly $10 billion in processing losses and more than $400 million in lost wages to plant employees.
As to when and how furloughs might take place, USDA provided Capital Press with the following statement:
"Specific furlough dates for FSIS personnel have yet to be determined, but there is no question sequestration will have an adverse impact on food inspection services. USDA is taking steps to minimize the impact of the furloughs on consumers, our employees and the meat industry."