U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has responded to the letter sent by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and eight others regarding concerns over the proposal to furlough meat and poultry product inspectors as a result of sequestration. Vilsack agreed that furloughing Food Safety and Inspection Service employees - including food safety inspectors - would have an adverse impact on those employees and the American public. But unless actions are taken to address sequestration - Vilsack said FSIS will have no choice but to furlough its employees in order to stay within the funding levels provided by Congress. Upon hearing from Vilsack - Grassley expressed concern that USDA isn’t doing everything possible to avoid something as drastic as furloughing meat and poultry product inspectors. Grassley also called the response unsatisfactory - and said he now has additional questions. Among other things - Grassley would like to see the legal memos prepared by the administration’s legal team that clearly lays out the department’s ability to furlough these inspectors.
Grassley also referred to the leaked email that many say suggests USDA is instructing its employees not to look for ways to use flexibility in making spending cuts. He said he’s curious if field offices of FSIS have received a similar message. USDA says the effort to explain the impacts of budget cuts to an APHIS employee was misrepresented. According to USDA - the communication with Congress referenced in the email was about the fiscal year 2013 budget - not the impacts of sequester.
Grassley said there are still more questions than answers regarding the Department’s plan to furlough inspectors despite the harm it will cause to farmers, meat and poultry product processors and consumers. He plans to send a follow-up letter - and continue asking questions until he is satisfied Congress is hearing the full story and rationale behind the administration’s plans.