Looming federal budget cuts are threatening to temporarily shut down North Carolina’s multibillion-dollar hog and poultry industry by disrupting federal meat inspections, according to state and federal officials.
State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said he is concerned that furloughs of federal meat inspectors, along with other federal budget cuts, could disrupt production at major slaughterhouses – thereby wreaking havoc with the entire farm-to-supermarket food chain.
“We have to find a way to keep these plants open,” Troxler told a meeting of the state’s elected leaders, called the Council of State, on Tuesday.
“This is getting close to being an emergency,” added Gov. Pat McCrory.
The budget cuts – called sequestration – would affect 429 full-time and 61 part-time federal meat inspectors working in North Carolina.
Because of the budget cuts, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a congressional committee on Tuesday that roughly 8,000 federal meat inspectors would have to be furloughed for 11 or 12 days, although not consecutively.
The automatic across-the-board budget cuts to federal agencies such as the USDA were triggered March 1, when President Barack Obama and Congress were unable to agree to a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Vilsack said it would likely be several months before any meat inspectors are furloughed.
But without federal inspectors, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants would have to shut down.
“Effectively it would shut down plants for 11 or 12 days – two weeks,” said Deborah Johnson, chief executive officer of the N.C. Pork Council, an industry trade group.
The state Department of Agriculture also faces a reduction in funding for state meat inspectors – the federal government provides 50 percent of the funding for the state inspections.
The state has 82 field meat inspectors, mainly working at 63 smaller operations, while the federal inspectors handle the industry giants like Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, both of which have several facilities in North Carolina.
Smithfield’s plant in Tar Heel is the largest slaughterhouse and meat processing plant in the world.
Inspectors work at the plant inspecting the animals for disease, making sure conditions are sanitary, rejecting adulterated meat and otherwise making sure the meat is USDA approved.
If the inspector is not present, the plant is shut down.
“Every small (meat-processing) facility in the state – if the cuts go through – could be adversely impacted in some way,” Troxler said.
Troxler said he was looking at various contingency plans to make up for the loss of federal funding in the state-run meat inspections.
Troxler said he would look at shifting state funds and paying overtime to compensate for the loss of federal funding.
Any shutdown of plants could have a major impact on North Carolina.
Agribusiness is still a $10.5 billion-a-year industry in North Carolina – the largest in the state – employing an estimated 640,000 people.
Animal-based agriculture represents 66 percent of the agriculture receipts in the state.
North Carolina is the second largest hog-producing state and the second-largest poultry-producing state.
“There is a trickle-down effect,” Johnson said.
If processing plants get backed up, farmers could get stuck with their animals and face losses, she said.
“It is potentially a significant disruption to the lives of a lot of American farmers and to citizens,” she said.
Johnson said she hoped that federal meat inspectors would be declared essential personnel and be exempted from the cuts.
Consumers could also feel the effect of sequestration because it could back up the entire food supply chain, said Linda Andrews of the N.C. Farm Bureau.
The Farm Bureau has had members in Washington in recent weeks lobbying lawmakers on the issue.