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Will The Sequester Lead to a Meat Shortage?

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USDA Inspector | Photo: usdagov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

"The Sequester" that's all the rage in Washington these days is, simultaneously, one of the most complex and easily-grasped concepts around.

In short: Back in 2011, a deal was struck by Republicans and Democrats to create a looming deadline ("The Sequester") at the beginning of 2013 that would, theoretically, force the two to come to a budgetary agreement in the meantime. The thought-process was that the cuts to public programs from this sequester would get the two groups to stop bickering and finally come to a deal. Problem was, these two groups really do not like each other and the deadline has now passed. What this means is that the government is now slashing a whole bunch of spending, across a wide spectrum of areas. (Numbers-wise, this means cutting $1.2 trillion out of the budget over the next decade, including $85 million to be shorn this year alone.) Everything from defense to national parks is on the "trimming" block.

Where it gets complex is just what programs are being cut and how this is going to legitimately affect the citizens of the country.

On one side are those who believe $85 million a year is simply a drop in the bucket when it comes to the nation's budget. On the other are those are feel the programs being cut are vital enough that the country will be left in shambles. (As you'd expect, partisan bickering comes into play mighty heavily here; the truth is probably somewhere in between.) And while cutting of defense and social programs are sure to effect certain parts of the population, there's one area being de-funded that's definitely going to be felt by us all: the area of food inspection.

According to the White House, the decade-long cuts will remove $56 million from Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, $53 million from Food Safety and Inspection Service, and $2 million from Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. While spreading those cuts across 10 years may not seem that bad, it gets scarier when Tom Vilsack, the country's Agriculture Secretary, goes on record saying the following:

"Make no mistake about it, there is not enough flexibility in the sequester language for me to move money around to avoid furloughs of food inspectors."

More recently, while testifying before the House Committee on Agriculture about the effect the sequester will have on our food supply, he added this bit of panic:

No matter how you slice it and dice it, there's nothing you can do without impacting front line inspectors," he said. "The inspections are very, very important and we will do everything we can to minimize the disruption, but I have to be truthful to this committee that based on the way the sequester is structured, it will impact food inspection."

Not having inspectors on duty means meat and poultry isn't getting inspected, means they won't be allowed to be sold to consumers, means, ultimately, a meat and poultry shortage (Luckily, this seems to still be a few months away from becoming a reality.) And if the country starts devolving into meat shortages, well, that's when this sequester nonsense will most certainly "be solved." If there's one area of the population that both sides of the aisle want among their constituents, it's the country's meat-eating public.

But we may not even have to worry all that much after all. Not all congressional reps are this scared. For instance, you have Republican Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, who paints a less horrific picture of the sequester. While questioning Vilsack in the aforementioned public hearing, here was his question:

But you will, Mr. Secretary, utilize the maximum flexibility you have. You have substantial inspectors in plants all over the country, plants that work on different hour schedules. The odds that we would furlough every inspector on the same day are rather minuscule, correct?

Suggesting that perhaps Vilsack's doomsday scenario is just a way to scare the Republicans into coming to an agreement? Or perhaps it's Lucas who's under-cutting the legitimate impact the budget cuts are going to have in our food industry? Seeing as it's bipartisan bickering and all, it's tough to determine exactly who's right here. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, maybe feel free to throw a few extra chickens in the freezer.

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