Of all the possible consequences of the U.S. budget sequestration that popped up in the media before Friday's deadline, few provoked as much fear and loathing (at least on the HuffPost Food team) as the threat of a meat industry shutdown.
At the beginning of February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that the budget cuts mandated by the sequester would force the USDA to furlough meat inspectors for up to 15 days. Federal law prohibits meat plants from operating without a federal inspector, so this suggested the entire industry would have to shut for more than two weeks, leading to higher prices and shortages.
Now that the sequester has begun, Vilsack on Tuesday explained to the House Agriculture Committee what that means for our meat supply.
Here's the bad news: Vilsack said there's no way the USDA can avoid furloughing inspectors as long as its budget remains at the level dictated by the sequester. "No matter how you slice it, no matter how you dice it, there is nothing you can do without impacting the frontline inspectors," he said.
One committee member suggested that the meat inspections are an "essential" service that supersedes budgetary concerns. But Vilsack held his ground.
"I agree with you that the inspections are very, very important, and we will do everything we can to minimize the disruption," Vilsack said. "But I'm going to be honest with this committee that based on the way the sequester is structured, it will impact food inspection."
The hearing brought (relatively) good news as well. Vilsack said his department had found other ways to save money that would allow it to minimize furloughs to "11 or 12 days." And those 11 or 12 days will be staggered throughout the year, so the meat industry is likely to be able to operate continuously, albeit at reduced capacity.
"I don't think you're going to see a continuous furlough, because that would basically shut down the pipeline completely," Vilsack said. "What we're going to try to do is maintain some degree of movement through the pipeline to avoid a more significant disruption."
For that reason, Janet Riley, at the American Meat Institute, said shortages at the supermarket are unlikely.
"You're not going to see an empty meat case," Riley told The Huffington Post in a phone call. "Though you might see fewer choices in many areas, and you might see higher prices."
Prices for beef and pork are still near the all-time highs they reached in the past two summers, so it's likely that another price spike would make it hard for some families to buy as much meat as they do today.
Vilsack also held out the dim hope that furloughs could still be avoided altogether. He said that the USDA's contracts with the meat inspectors' union require that he negotiate with the unions before declaring any unpaid furloughs. That means that the exact terms of the furloughs can't be decided for more than a month, at the soonest. If -- this is a big if -- Congress and the White House reach a deal that restores full funding to the USDA before then, the meat supply could avert the "shutdown" completely.