The U.S. Agriculture Department could try to concentrate potential furloughs of meat inspectors into the final quarter of the fiscal year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Vilsack, warning of disruptions in the meat industry, said the agency would send notices of furloughs to meat inspectors this week, but it will be several months before they will occur.
The furloughs, which could lead to spotty shutdowns of meat plants, would be one of the most visible effects of automatic budget cuts that took effect at the start of this month. By law, processors cannot ship meat without the USDA inspection seal.
"We will do everything we can to minimize disruptions," Vilsack said at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee. "It will impact inspections."
The USDA has said it would stagger the furloughs to minimize their effect on operations.
"I don't think you're going to see a continuous furlough," Vilsack told lawmakers at a hearing on the state of the rural economy days after U.S. President Barack Obama signed the sequester order.
The Obama administration says all 8,400 inspectors might be furloughed for a total of 15 days. Vilsack said the total was more likely to be 11 or 12 days.
The USDA will need a substantial amount of time to deliver notices to inspectors, hold consultations and schedule any furloughs, said Vilsack.
"We are looking at a several-month period, if you will, before a furlough could be implemented," he said. "The industry will have some notice of what will happen."
As a result, the furloughs could take place mainly in the final three months of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. "That's one of the problems," Vilsack said.
The administration says furloughs of inspectors en masse would shut down meat packers and processors for two weeks and cost them $10 billion in production.
Meat inspectors are guaranteed 30 days' notice of a furlough, said the union that represents them. Inspectors could face a furlough of one day a week but not always the same day.
During the hearing, committee chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, chided the administration for "trying to scare the American people with worst-case scenarios." Lucas said USDA should "manage sequestration without a mass disruption to the rural economy.
Recent suggestions by USDA of a two-week total shutdown of the meat industry "affected prices, caused concern among financial markets and alarmed buyers and sellers in the retail and food service community," Lucas said.
Some Republicans on the committee suggested USDA could avoid furloughs by shifting money among other accounts or by cost-cutting in other areas within the agency.
But Vilsack said the furloughs were unavoidable when spending must be cut by 10 to 12 percent for the rest of the year - to achieve a 5-percent cut for the fiscal year - and inspectors account for 87 percent of the agency's budget.
"No matter how you slice it," said Vilsack, furloughs are certain. "We are going to try to maintain movement through the (meat industry) process," he said.