Meat inspection furloughs could come as surprise for some locals

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 09:35 PM

If the USDA stops its meat and poultry inspections for two weeks, as the agency’s director has said could happen, the move will come as a surprise to many local farmers, processors and retailers whose livelihoods depend on consumers’ love of burgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and much more.

Despite several statements from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that federal sequestration measures — the official term for $85 billion in budget cuts that will go into effect March 1 unless Congress acts — would force him to furlough the country’s meat inspectors for two weeks, almost everyone contacted locally had not heard of the potential cuts and, when told about them, expressed doubt as to Vilsack’s sincerity.

“No,” said Tim Thomas, whose family owns and operates Thomas and Sons Butcher Shop in Sanford. “That won’t happen.”

Dan Campeau, the N.C Cooperative Extension specialized poultry agent for Chatham, Lee, Harnett, Moore and Randolph counties, also said the move seems unlikely.

“The government can do it, and they have done some crazy things in the past,” he said. “But it would be such a bad thing to happen, not just to the people who raise the birds and process the birds, but to the people who buy them, that I just don’t think it would happen.”

Sam Groce, director of the Chatham County Cooperative Extension branch and the county’s head livestock agent, said prices would jump drastically in such a scenario. He said there would likely be little to no red meat in large grocery stores and prices for meat at farmers’ markets — which doesn’t have to be inspected by the USDA because it doesn’t cross state lines — would become sky high.

“There’s a whole lot of people who don’t buy straight from the local markets, and there’s not enough local supply to handle a rush,” he said, noting that about 90 percent of the beef market is controlled by three large corporations.

Donald Delozier, director of the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Inspection Division, was out of the office Thursday, but said in an email that he doesn’t think the federal inspectors themselves would end up being furloughed.

“Based on my past experience with this issue, I would say if there are furloughs, it most likely be for non-essential personnel such as inspectors that are not assigned to plants such as supervisors and office personnel,” he wrote.

But if Delozier’s wrong and the furloughs are applied to inspectors, Groce and Campaeu said, there will be issues because most animal farms in the area contract with large corporations. Those farmers wouldn’t be secure because they’re only paid on how many pounds they ultimately process, not how many animals they raise. And the timeline for both poultry and beef, they said, is very specific.

Groce said especially with cows sold for ground beef or dog food, bad timing on the furloughs could lead to total loss for the farmers. Those cows, he said, are usually old ones that are sold once it becomes clear they will die soon anyway. But if they die on the farm instead of being killed in a packing plant, the meat can’t be used for anything — not even dog food. The bodies, he said, simply have to be disposed of.

Chickens, Campeau said, are generally processed when they’re between seven and 10 weeks old. As they get older, they become too heavy and their health starts breaking down. He said that three-week window could spell disaster if it lined up with the two-week furlough: If the farmers go early to avoid it, they would have to send in underweight birds. If they wait, they could end up losing the whole flock. And to top it all off, there’s no telling when the furloughs might come, with Vilsack saying Thursday he would give between 30 and 120 days notice.

“It would be the farmers that suffer in the end,” Campeau said. “Think about it. This whole thing is set up to get five flocks through in a season, and if this happened, they might only be able to get four out. And their bills often depend on them assuming they’ll get five flocks.”

Thomas’s shop gets all of its meat from out of state, he said, but he wasn’t worried about the furloughs, which would affect all meat that crosses state lines. Two local chicken farmers, who contract and didn’t want to be identified, had never heard of the furloughs but said they weren’t worried. And Abdul Chaudhry, who owns a plant in Siler City that processes halal meat — the Muslim equivalent to kosher, which requires even stricter inspections — also said he wasn’t concerned.

“We have inspectors here every day, and I haven’t heard anything like that,” he said. “As far ask I know, we’ll just keep on trucking.”