Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) asked Elizabeth Hagen, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, on Wednesday, the question that many have been asking regarding the ongoing service cuts at USDA: Have you been told to make these cuts as painful as possible?

It’s difficult to believe that the proposed furloughs of meat inspectors and reductions of USDA reports are the only– or even the best – ways to meet budget shortfalls, especially in light of the proposed country-of origin labeling rule change that pretty much pokes Canada and Mexico with a sharp stick instead of solving the trade case at hand.

Hagen’s proposal to furlough USDA meat inspectors all on the same day for 11 days beginning in mid-July is catching heat from many fronts. The action, which she and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack say are necessary due to the across-the-board nature of the sequestration cuts, would slow the flow of meat animals and poultry through the slaughter process since plants are not allowed to operate without inspectors being present.

The USDA officials, of course, try to make the case that the reductions will cause “spotty meat shortages from a slowed-down production system in the summer and early fall.”

Warning consumers of “shortages” is always a good scare tactic. Remember the reaction of the press last fall when a British pig industry official suggested that there may be a “shortage” of bacon?

 

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On the contrary, a manufactured slowdown in the flow of animals to slaughter would likely have a larger impact on the value of animals by:

  • Backing them up on farms and
  • Causing production to increase due to additional weight gain.

Depending on how the furloughs are spaced, there will almost certainly be pigs, cattle and turkeys that go to market 8-11 days later than they would under a normal production flow. The impact on chickens may be smaller due to their shorter 5- to 7-week feeding period. The number of animals in the pipeline is pretty much set. Slowing the rate at which they are removed means MORE product, not less, and we fear that that means lower prices for producers.

But it’s hard to scare consumers (i.e., voters) with that threat.

 

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