Impact of FSIS Inspection Budget Cuts on the Meat Industry

Butcher making sausages
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The 2011 budget-slashing sequester brought about by political inaction in Washington, DC did not impact the safety of America’s meat supply, as many originally feared. But with sequester cuts being an automatic part of the U.S. budget from now through 2021, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will likely be looking over their shoulders for the next few years.

The primary issues lie in the fact that the 6,300 American meatpacking and processing plants simply cannot operate without FSIS inspectors. Before Congress passed an amendment that President Obama signed in late March 2013 allowing for reallocation of $55 million in the USDA budget to cover a shortfall, the nation’s 8,400 meat inspectors were looking at two-week involuntary furloughs during summer 2013. The rolling furloughs would have resulted in a day off each week that summer for meat inspectors. While fewer inspectors on the job is never a good thing, the safety of the U.S. meat supply was less in question as its ability to continue operations. Here's why.

Federal FSIS Inspectors and the U.S. Meat Industry

If inspectors aren’t working, packinghouses can’t operate the result of which would have also led to involuntary furloughs for about half a million meat industry workers and resulted in $400 million in lost wages.

To avoid this, Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced an emergency funding measure, which passed the House by a vote of 318 to 109 and the Senate by 73 to 26. It was one of just seven measures considered “must pass” for the government to continue operating at near-normal levels under the sequester.

That said, the measure is still robbing Peter to pay Paul: The $55 million – which represents about five percent of the annual FSIS budget — will come from elsewhere in the USDA coffers. The Pryor-Blunt amendment transferred funds from one-time funding for USDA school equipment grants and deferred maintenance on USDA buildings and facilities for 2013.

Continued FSIS Federal Budget Concerns

Moving forward, it is not known where the money will come from to cover the shortfall — it’s a dangerous game of musical chairs that will continue until Congress finds a compromise to the budget crisis that led to the sequester or the budget cuts sunset in 2021.

Some, like National Pork Producers Council President Randy Spronk, celebrated the Pryor-Blunt amendment who said, of the amendment's passing, “This is very good news for pork producers and other livestock and poultry producers...Federal meat inspection is a function that should be maintained to protect the public health by ensuring the safety of the U.S. meat supply. We’re pleased meat inspections will continue, and we are very grateful to Sens. Blunt and Pryor for their efforts to protect food-animal producers and meat packers from costly losses and consumers from higher prices.” Others, like U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, felt this should be a wake-up call: "The action does not eliminate the critical need for Congress to find a responsible solution to sequestration through balanced deficit reduction.”

While the amendment that spurred the necessary budget reallocation saved the industry from a disaster that year, it did nothing to ensure continued safety in years to come. In fact, FSIS budget concerns would be raised again in discussions of the 2015 budget when budget cuts hit FSIS again in part as a result of the “Modernization of Poultry Inspection Rule," a rule that opponents have viewed as an allowance for companies to privatize poultry inspection.

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