The Ottumwa Courier

March 21, 2013

Sequestration could impact Ottumwa Cargill

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — If a meat inspector gets laid off for the day, a Cargill Meat Solutions employee could get laid off for the day. Whether that will happen is still undecided as lawmakers wrestle over sequestration.

During a conference call with about a dozen Iowa media outlets, some “everyday Iowans” discussed their fears of the sequestration — the across-the-board budget cuts planned by the federal government.

One of those Iowans was Trent Berhow, a federal meat inspector and a member of a union, the American Federation of Government Employees. He’s been inspecting meat at packing plants around Iowa for more than 20 years.

He said the USDA is planning for the layoffs, discussing between 11 and 15 “furlough days,” which are days off without pay. But he says if he gets sent home for the day, so would every worker around him.  

“As soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down,” Berhow said. “They cannot operate without an inspector.”

There is a rule that any food that may cross state lines must be federally inspected. But in-state-only products can be checked by state inspectors. Asked by the Courier if that means in-state production could continue — keeping a plant partly open — Berhow said it’s more complicated than that.

“You have the [Cargill Meat Solutions] plant in Ottumwa,” he said. “If the furlough happens, that plant will shut down [on those days]. There will be nothing happening inside that plant. It’s not just a matter of bringing in state inspectors.”

But as a union official (on a conference call facilitated by the union AFSCME), was Berhow perhaps overreacting to the sequestration talk that would be bad for union  members?

Not really, say some Washington senators on both sides of the aisle: This isn’t about partisan politics. And officials at Cargill will “keep our fingers crossed,” said a company representative.  

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Mike Martin, the Cargill company spokesman based at headquarters in Wichita, Kan. “The bottom line is if the federal meat plant inspectors are not present, we cannot operate. We cannot produce and ship meat products. That’s been the big concern.”

The hope, however, is that meat inspectors won’t get cut.

“Cargill’s position [has been] that it should be avoided, and that it can be avoided,” Martin said.

Legislators do know what is at stake, he said. Cargill and other meat packers around the country have contacted their congressional representatives and senators, as well as U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. So have the industry groups that represent beef, pork, turkey and other meat production.

That message from business is that we need our inspectors. The American consumer needs the inspectors.

Their position is well known in the U.S. Senate and the House, he said. And there are elected officials who agree there are better ways to save money than to threaten food supplies, food costs and the jobs of an estimated half million Americans working in and around the packing plants, including more than 2,000 people in the Wapello County area.   

Could the layoffs be staggered so that work can continue for thousands  of Iowa employees?

“No,” said Berhow. For example in one western Iowa community, “you have 1,800 people working at two packing plants, and 20 USDA inspectors. The Department of Agriculture decision-makers ... have told me [just] three weeks ago they will not stagger the furloughs.”

So the USDA would not send half of the inspectors home while the other half reports to work.

“Everybody simultaneously,” he declared. “[If] the furloughs are coming, the plants [would be] shutting down.”

Martin said Cargill’s government representative was watching the U.S. Senate at that moment (Wednesday afternoon), and said he was cautiously optimistic there would be a bill to allow the USDA to save money on non-essential USDA employees while leaving the inspectors alone.

In fact, an hour later, the “Pryor-Blunt Amendment” allowing that flexibility passed a voice vote in the Senate — but had yet to be sent to the House for a vote, too.

There was another suggestion in a question asked by the media that because of the importance of the U.S. food supply, USDA consumer safety inspectors might be part of the “essential services” plan. The government would allow workers in essential rolls to continue working: Prison guards can’t all take a day off, never mind 11 days off. Nor can air traffic controllers.

Maybe that could include meat inspectors, but there’s no guarantee — and people should be concerned right now, Berhow said.

“I hold out hope. I guess I could hope in one hand and spit in the other,” Berhow said. “Sequestration is a horrible policy.”

Americans need to contact their Congressional representatives, he said — even if they or a family member do not work at a packing house.

Production will shut down for that period. Reduced supply means higher prices, Berhow said.  

“It would definitely be problematic keeping enough meat in the pipeline,” Martin concurred. “Given the enormity of their budget, there should be a way to make these cuts. It would really be a shame if the consumers were negatively impacted when it was unnecessary.”