Meat Inspections Face Cuts Without Sequester Deal, Vilsack Says

The U.S. will need to reduce the number of inspections at meatpacking plants unless Congress can avoid threatened across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

The cuts, totaling $1.2 trillion, are more serious than a normal spending reduction because of the tighter time frame involved in meeting targets for a fiscal year that would be almost half over, Vilsack said today after a speech in Washington. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is studying how it would handle reductions, which would affect nutrition programs as well as food safety and research, he said. Food stamps are exempted.

“You’re going to have fewer inspections,” Vilsack said, without saying whether staffing would be reduced. The government’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

The cuts, known as sequestration, were first included in an August 2011 deficit-reduction deal designed to be so draconian that it would push Democrats and Republicans to compromise on taxes and spending. The plan would slash $600 billion in Pentagon spending over a decade, reductions that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called “devastating.” Other agencies would be responsible for the rest of the reductions. The lack of an agreement is creating “major headwinds” for the economy, White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week.

The USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, eggs and poultry products, with about 8,400 personnel inspecting the nation’s 6,300 slaughterhouses and processing plants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration handles other products that account for about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Each year, contaminated food kills about 3,000 people and sends another 128,000 to hospitals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.