Livestock producers and processors are concerned about a possible interruption in meat inspection. (Photo courtesy National Corn Growers Association)
By Carrie Muehling
SPRINGFIELD – A possible 15-day suspension of meat and poultry inspections has livestock producers and processors questioning the USDA and the Obama administration.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this week that the potential March 1 sequester could cause the furlough of more than 8,000 inspectors at 6,300 processing facilities. One of those facilities is Rantoul Foods in east central Illinois.
“With how the business runs, it’s just like any business. These producers are on a cycle,” explained Chris Fleming, procurement manager for swine production at Rantoul Foods. “These pigs are being raised for a weekly delivery and if you watch the daily slaughter of hogs, that would just back up the amount of hogs that are going be available. So it would drive the market down and it would cost the producers substantially.”
Livestock producers face a different challenge than other farmers when it comes to harvesting their products.
“It’s not like corn or beans where we just store it. We have to move pigs to harvesting every day, and if we can’t do that, it would dramatically hinder us. What do we do with those extra pigs? We have more pigs coming up, and we only have so many facilities so we can’t just back them up,” said Phil Borgic, past president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association and pork producer from Nokomis, Ill. “And then the price. It would have a devastating effect on the price we receive for hogs even if we close down one day. We are fairly balanced right now and there’s just not that much give in the system that we could handle any furlough days, actually, at this point.”
Fleming said the USDA’s announcement about the possible suspension of meat and poultry inspectors has spurred a lot of questions from producers like Borgic.
“I started to field quite a few calls from producers about how this could affect the business,” said Fleming. “With the furlough they’re talking about taking, it’s going to really throw a monkey wrench into the producers raising the animals and being able to move them and being able to keep everything marketed correctly the way they need to be marketed.”
Borgic realizes it’s out of his control, but he has concern for food safety and food prices.
“It’s out of producers hands and we hope that somebody does the right thing and keeps our system in place,” said Borgic. “Food safety is everyone’s priority to make sure we have safe, wholesome and affordable food. It will affect the consumer dramatically and very quickly because if we’re not harvesting that means there is not new meat to put in the refrigerator case in the grocery store.”
Even in 1995 and 1996 when government furloughs were enacted during the Clinton administration, essential services like meat inspection continued. Food safety has always been a priority when it comes to keeping those inspectors on the job.
“It was brought up a year ago at this time when they were talking about making all the cuts on the government side of the business that food safety is probably the number one thing that they did not want to let go of, and this was a situation for the nation and for the food business that we need to keep this intact,” said Fleming.
Fleming pointed out that it would also mean no paycheck for those workers during that two week period, which could send them to the unemployment lines, costing the federal government more money. He said there is no question the action would hurt the entire industry, no matter how it is handled.
“Any time you take anything away from the packing side of the business, it’s going to cause a market fluctuation,” Fleming said.
It’s a scenario difficult for Borgic to imagine.
“That is one of those things you just always assumed would be there,” he said.
Borgic and Fleming attended the 2013 Illinois Livestock Symposium in Springfield on Feb. 14.
Carrie Muehling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DeAnna Thomas of WMBD/WIRL-Peoria contributed to this story.