Meat industry rescues federal workers

meat food inspectors
The meat and poultry industry came to the rescue of food inspectors who faced 11 days of furloughs this year.

At least one type of government worker has a friend in big business.

Over 9,000 federal food inspectors won't face furloughs after top companies from the meat and poultry industries spoke out in support of them.

In a bill passed by both houses of Congress and sent to President Obama on Thursday, food safety and inspection workers avoided 11 days of furlough, or one day a week from July through September.

So far, they are the only federal workers that Congress has agreed to deliver from furloughs. Close to a million federal workers will be forced to stay home without pay from 3 to 22 days, depending on the agency, thanks to $85 billion in forced budget cuts that took effect March 1.

Meat and poultry heavyweights, including Arkansas-based Tyson Foods (TSN) and the cattle industry's powerful lobby group, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, wooed lawmakers -- especially Republicans, some of whom were in no mood to mitigate any part of the sequester, according to congressional aides.

Last week, the National Chicken Council flew in chicken processors from several states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and California, who met face-to-face with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The groups argued that, unlike other industries that would face only minor disruption, furloughs would lead to a complete shutdown of meat and poultry packing plants on days that the government inspectors stayed home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had estimated that 15 days of furloughs for meat inspectors would lead to a loss of $10 billion and cut production by 2 billion pounds of meat, 3 billion pounds of chicken, and 200 million pounds of eggs. People expected it to cause food shortages and possibly price spikes at the grocery store.

"This was a perfect storm, because it would have shut down the food supply and would have affected everyone who eats," said Chase Adams, spokesman for the cattlemen's group, which urged members to write their lawmakers and USDA to keep inspectors on the job.

Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, sponsored the amendment saving food inspectors. It was added to a bill that would keep government running through Sept. 30.

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One reason why Republicans agreed to save food inspectors was that the measure didn't spend new money, congressional aides say. It came from a $55 million funding shift -- $30 million cut from a program to maintain USDA buildings and $25 million from a new USDA program to upgrade school kitchen equipment.

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Pryor and his co-sponsor on the amendment, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, represent areas with big meat processing plants. Arkansas, alone, has 91 meat slaughter and poultry processing plants that employ 44,000 workers.

The meat and poultry industry is no stranger to winning big on Capitol Hill. Meat and poultry processors have spent more than $28 million on lobbying each year since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson confirmed the company was among those pushing for funding for food inspectors. He called the bill's passage "good news for consumers, farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and meat companies."

Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Washington consumer group Food and Water Watch, said the meat and poultry industry worked the funding bill pretty hard. Though his group is usually on the other side of the industry on issues, he supported saving food inspectors from furloughs.

"You're talking about food safety, and this is going to get everybody's attention, because everybody's got to eat," Corbo said.

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