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The lines of defense

Friday, February 22, 2013 - Updated: 5:09 PM

Ever get the feeling that your government is messing with your head? (Of course you do. You have, after all, filled out tax forms a time or two.)

An interesting example of the phenomenon would be this "sequestration" business. Although as I understand it, the coming financial apocalypse would actually only mean a decrease in increases in mushrooming government spending, as opposed to say an actual lessening of tossing cash around, it is being touted as pretty near the end of the world.

The government is looking for the most painful way to make you think that is just what it is, too. In the interests of complying with automatic spending cuts -- or, if you prefer, automatic cuts in spending increases -- that will begin March first, White House representatives claim that Food Safety Inspection Service employees will be furloughed for more than two weeks.

FSIS supplies inspectors to meat producing plants. By law, no inspector equals no processing equals no meat in the supermarket. Believe me: They know how quickly that will get your attention.

The American Meat Institute has sent a letter to the president pointing out that such an action is probably illegal (besides being downright foolish.)

"As the possibility of sequestration becomes more real, so does the threat to the industry's ability to provide a critical component of the food supply," AMI President J. Patrick Boyle wrote, adding that USDA inspectors have historically been deemed "essential" personnel. He said that that for many years, the Office of Management and Budget has deemed essential those employees whose "activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials."

In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the same organization said, "AMI respectfully disagrees with the department's assertion in that, in the event of sequestration, the furloughs referenced are necessary and legal. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act impose many obligations on the inspected industry, which we strive to meet. Those acts, also however, impose an obligation on the department -- to provide inspection services."

National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Scott George had strong words on the subject as well. "Secretary Vilsack is using America's cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency's political wrangling with Congress. While we are certain the USDA contains other 'non-essential' employees, the secretary has chosen to announce the consequences of sequestration in terms of a furlough of FSIS inspectors, essentially threatening to close down all production, processing and interstate distribution of meat. This action has already cost cattle producers significant amounts of money with the downward slide in the futures markets caused by rampant speculation, with untold effect on producers through further regulatory uncertainty.

"Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act the production, processing or interstate distribution of meat, poultry and egg products is prohibited absent federal inspection. Such a move would impact approximately 6,290 establishments nationwide and the agency estimates the move would cost over $10 billion in production losses. Industry workers they estimate would experience over $400 million in lost wages, consumers would experience limited meat and poultry supplies and potentially higher prices and food safety could be compromised."

Boyle had a sensible suggestion. "Rather than impose across-the-board furloughs that will lead to plant closures, it is incumbent upon the department to examine the options available to it; e.g., suspending certain non-essential programs and furloughing non-essential personnel within the 13 different offices (only one of which involves inspectors in plant) that make up FSIS."

Anyone with any common sense can easily see that shutting down most meat production by laying off inspectors is a scare tactic. The same technique was used when the so-called "dairy cliff" was wildly publicized during the rundown to Jan. 1, the most recent time sequestration was threatened.

The powers that be wanted you scared then and they want you worried that you will lose an important food source now. They want you ready and willing to sacrifice whatever they ask for in terms of higher taxes or cuts in services to protect the necessities of life. Shame on them.

It is utterly absurd to even talk about cutting out the first line of food safety defense between the feed lot the dinner table, but you will be hearing plenty about it unless the politicos get their way.

Speaking of food inspections, however, we might complain about the way the U.S. does things, at least our hamburgers come from cows. In Europe a number of food companies have scandalized their customers by including meat from horses in ground beef, which even found its way into schools and hospitals.

In a labyrinth of crime, horse meat, originally from Romania, was sold into France, and then mixed with beef, which ended up in several other countries.

Although arrests have been made, there is no way to know yet just how widespread the practice was. However, companies in Germany, Hungary, Denmark, Britain and Ireland have been scrambling to recall packaged products and burgers.

One source claimed that purchases of frozen burgers has dropped by 40 percent as a result.

Not surprisingly there are those who have found plenty of humor in the situation. They started with the obvious. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse -- oh, wait, I already did."

And then there was: "My doctor told me to watch what I eat, so I went out and bought tickets for the Grand National."

"I think someone may be sending me death threats. I woke up this morning with a Tesco burger in my bed."

Not to mention: "Roses are red, apples are fruity, watch your lasagna, it might be Black Beauty.

And my personal favorite: "I bought an 'award-winning' Tesco burger. I didn't realize they meant it had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup."

Perhaps in response (although probably not), Montana has proposed allowing its citizens to harvest meat from road-killed wildlife, such as deer and antelope.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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