Across-the-board budget cuts may halt meatpackers -White House

Fri Feb 8, 2013 10:36pm GMT

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* Without USDA inspectors, meat plants would have to close

* Production losses of $10 billion possible

* White House ties budget cuts to everyday life

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Friday across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March may result in furloughing every U.S. meat and poultry inspector for two weeks, causing the meat industry to shut down.

By law, meatpackers and processors are not allowed to ship beef, pork, lamb and poultry meat without the Agriculture Department's inspection seal.

The prospect of mass furloughs of meat and food inspectors was part of a broader White House warning about what effects government spending cuts due to take effect in March would have on everyday life.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans still must resolve differences over spending cuts and tax increases, dubbed the "fiscal cliff," which essentially was delayed by both sides from happening on Jan. 1 and was pushed back until March.

"USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks," a White House statement said.

An estimated $10 billion in production would be lost during a two-week furlough, said a USDA official, and consumers could see meat shortages and higher prices as a result.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lamented across-the-board spending cuts during a speech to state agriculture directors on Tuesday.

"There is not much we can do when Congress says to cut every line item by a certain percent," said Vilsack. He said employee pay accounted for the bulk of spending at the meat safety agency.

USDA spends about $1 billion on meat safety annually and has 8,400 inspectors at 6,290 slaughter and processing plants.

"Our common goal is to ensure that inspections remain unhindered," said the National Cattleman's Beef Association, speaking for ranchers and cattle feeders.

Americans consume more than 200 pounds (91 kg) of meat apiece each year, an average of slightly more than one-half pound a day.

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