USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Feb. 8 announcement that USDA is considering a 15-day furlough of Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel to reduce costs is troublesome, to say the least. Last week, Editor Joe Roybal asked the question, “Will FSIS furlough hold the food system hostage?”  While some are saying it will be a non-issue, even if the furlough does occur, others see it as a political move using ranchers as pawns  in a game we will struggle to win.
The repercussions of halting  meat production for two weeks would be huge. J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, pointed out that: “The U.S. government has a statutory obligation to provide meat and poultry inspection services.” Thus, he says, "It is incumbent upon the Secretary to examine the options available and develop a plan to provide inspection services, e.g., furlough non-essential agency personnel, in order to satisfy the duty imposed on him by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Product Inspection Act."
From an economic standpoint, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) estimates that approximately 6,290 establishments would be impacted by this furlough, costing more than $10 billion in production losses, as well as over $400 million in lost wages.
After several organizations contacted Vilsack with concerns about this furlough, he replied , “Because we understand that furloughing our food safety inspectors would not be good for consumers, the economy, the meat and poultry industry, or our workforce, we view such furloughs as the last option we would implement to achieve the necessary sequestration cut. However, were sequestration to become a reality, it simply would not be possible for FSIS to achieve the requisite level of savings by furloughing non-front line staff alone as your letter suggests.”
Despite the huge consequences this furlough would have on everyone from ranchers to consumers, there are some celebrating this halt of meat production. The Californian featured an opinion piece  from Susan Levin, director of nutrition education with the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Keep in mind that not only is PCRM a vegan activist group, but fewer than 5% of its membership are actually practicing physicians. However, for a consumer reading this op-ed, Levin’s points would be alarming.
Levin writes, “On behalf of dietitians, I hope the furlough happens — and I hope it never ends.
"The real savings isn’t in keeping thousands of meat inspectors at home and unpaid for a few weeks — it’s in keeping meat off Americans’ plates and helping them cut the meat habit. A meat industry shutdown would actually give consumers — and their bodies — a much-needed break from the foods that are causing our nation’s worst health problems. Americans are addicted to meat. The average American now eats more than 200 lbs. of meat/year. This addiction results in higher rates of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Withdrawal symptoms may include lower blood pressure, increased energy, and healthy weight loss.
“After just a few days without meat, people will notice a profound shift and realize how easy it is to follow a meatless diet. I predict that in two weeks or less, the nation’s worker productivity will increase, gyms will be fuller, and emergency rooms will have fewer visitors. We might even see Viagra sales plummet. Even in the short term, eating cheeseburgers and ham sandwiches kills our energy and causes the arteries to become clogged, reducing circulation to our most critical organs.”
While Levin wasn’t short on the dramatization, her figures just don’t add up. Americans today are eating less meat now than ever before. In fact, meat consumption in the U.S. dropped by 12% from 2007 to 2012, according to USDA projections. Yet, the obesity epidemic continues to escalate. Perhaps meat isn’t to blame after all. Eliminating a complete protein source like meat is hardly the way to solve America’s health woes.
While a discussion on the merits of meat in the diet is certainly warranted here, it will have to wait for a future blog post. Today’s post is dedicated to discussing this potential furlough and what it means to you. What do you think  about this furlough? How will it impact your business? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.