U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reached out to local media around the country on Thursday to defend plans to furlough meat and poultry inspectors for 11 days spread through July and August as part of the federal sequester.
He was grilled by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee this week, mostly by farm state Republicans, over whether there were less disruptive ways to cut the USDA budget.
The beef, pork and poultry industries could sustain an estimated loss of $10 billion from lost production, while plant workers could see lost wages of $400 million, according to the USDA.
Vilsack said Thursday in an interview with The Eagle that given the questions from the committee, he was surprised that it voted not to add any money back to Food Safety and Inspection Services during hearings. The committee did recommend adding money back to forestry programs, he said.
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The House, controlled by Republicans, and the Senate, controlled by Democrats, are working on plans that would both avoid a government shutdown later this month and possibly provide additional funding to federal agencies or give them more flexibility on sequester cuts.
“Half of my questions were on this topic,” Vilsack said. “But the House chose not to solve this by approving additional resources for food safety. I guess the House is not as concerned as I thought they were.”
Overall, he said, because of the sequester, the USDA is cutting $2 billion from a variety of programs. It will have a range of impacts on Kansas farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses.
The sequester is the result of a 2011 agreement between Congress and the White House, made as part of deal to raise the federal debt limit. The agreement requires the federal budget to be cut $85 billion this year, but the political intent was to do it in such an unpopular way that it would force Congress to back away from the cuts.
That hasn’t happened, and federal officials are now warning of a wide range of effects.
“That’s the last impact, the uncertainty of it all for producers,” he said. “When you add this on top of not having a five-year farm bill and the weather, it’s understandable that the producers have a lot more stress than they normally have.”