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As It Opens More Operations, USDA Relies on Staff to Work Without Pay

Federal meat inspectors are reporting to work without pay during the partial government shutdown, said an industry trade group on Wednesday, as the USDA called on 9,700 furloughed FSA employees to reopen offices nationwide today to serve farmers and ranchers. Food stamp benefits were paid early for February, but the USDA does not have a large enough reserve to pay benefits in full in March if the month-old shutdown continues.

When asked if meat companies had reported any disruption in inspections, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group, said, “Our experience is that inspectors are on the job and inspecting meat.” The shutdown is affecting a wide range of government agencies. At the IRS, for example, hundreds of employees have called in sick or received permission to stay home due to financial hardship, said the Washington Post. Now, the Post said, some of the USDA’s 8,600 meat inspectors “have begun calling in sick — in numbers large enough to trigger an agency crackdown.”

“There haven’t been any production impacts that we’re aware of,” said the meat industry spokesperson. “We haven’t heard anything to suggest that will change, so we fully anticipate inspection at all our plants will continue normally.”

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on meat inspectors or expectations for staff workers at its Farm Service Agency offices. The USDA says all FSA offices will be open today and handling a wider range of business than they provided during stopgap service last week.

The Senate was scheduled to vote today on rival Republican and Democratic plans to end the shutdown. Neither was expected to pass. On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled House passed legislation to reopen the government that included a rider to delay the relocation of two USDA research agencies.

House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson told a North Dakota radio station that he suggested to party leaders that the shutdown, triggered by President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a wall along the Mexican border, could be resolved by giving Trump the money but putting “strings on it so you make sure he puts the wall where it needs to be.” Peterson called for an expansion of the Border Patrol and more money to inspect cargo and passengers at U.S. ports of entry. “That’s more important than the wall,” he said during the News and Views program on KFGO-AM in Fargo.

The shutdown has stalled implementation of the 2018 farm law, slowed access to USDA loans and crop payments, and shut down the stream of USDA statistical reports and estimates that help farmers decide which crops to plant. The annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, a two-day extravaganza of speakers and forecasts of U.S. and world agricultural performance in the year ahead, is scheduled for late February.

In a sign that a protracted shutdown is possible, the White House asked agency leaders for a list of programs that would suffer the most if the shutdown persists into March or April, said the Post.

When the USDA announced the early release of SNAP benefits for February, it said there was sufficient funding for child nutrition programs, including school lunch, for February and March. There was enough money to cover February’s costs for the WIC program as well as for food delivery through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, it said.

SNAP is the focus of attention because of the size of the program — 38.6 million participants who collectively receive $4.8 billion in benefits monthly. States get about $350 million a month to defray the cost of administering food stamps. The USDA has a reserve of just $3 billion for SNAP, creating the risk of prorated benefits in March.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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