RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And if the mandatory spending cuts do take affect tomorrow, the secretary of agriculture says he will be forced to furlough food safety inspectors. Without those inspectors, food companies could grind to a halt. But many in the meat industry say the USDA is mostly cooking up a scare.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR has that story.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Food processing companies, ones that ship across state lines, get lots of scrutiny from the USDA. And it's not just producers of steak, chicken and pork chops, but also stuff like frozen pizza and burritos.
JOHN DICAPO: Yeah, we make the Jim's Hot Tamales and we're USDA, so we're able to ship the product all over the country.
John DiCapo owns this almost shoe-box sized business near downtown Kansas City. He says USDA inspectors are here with a clipboard and the preverbal fine tooth comb every day they fire up the tamale machine.
And then they'll come in, usually with a flashlight. They'll actually look inside hoppers and make sure the freezer temperature is where it needs to be, and that we are complying with USDA requirements.
MORRIS: And if they don't comply, or if there's just no inspector there to check, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that's it for the day.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That particular processing facility that has no inspector on site cannot do any work. All right? They're shut down.
MORRIS: And Vilsack says that is what could happen to more than 6,000 businesses if the sequester goes through.
VILSACK: There is no way that we can avoid having to furlough inspectors.
MORRIS: Inspectors, the people without whom no work can be done in an industry employing about half a million people. Vilsack says the sequester would force him to furlough inspectors for up to 15 days this spring and summer.
VILSACK: It's going to be quite disruptive to the food industry generally, and it will impact consumers' ability to get food and the price that they pay for the food.
MORRIS: Plants shutting down a day or two a week could trigger spot shortages of some foods and nudge up prices. Production stumbles would also create headaches for people who raise animals for meat.
BILL HAW: I think it would be an unconscionably significant event, if it happened as it's being described.
MORRIS: Bill Haw owns ranches and feed lots in Kansas. He says gumming up the food system this way would make producers hold their animals longer, cutting profit. Haw calls the inspector furloughs another nail in the coffin of an industry already reeling from drought, high feed costs and over-capacity.
HAW: In a way it seems odd that they would even propose something so ridiculous at a time like this. And the only reason I can think of is to try to stampede people into agitating for avoiding any kind of budget cuts.
MORRIS: It's just hype, Haw says.
Mark Dopp with the American Meat Institute calls the furloughs something else: illegal.
MARK DOPP: The Meat Inspection Act requires USDA to provide inspectors. So there is a conflict.
MORRIS: Between the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the sequester of 2013.
DOPP: And it's up to USDA to find a way around that, to be able to satisfy both of its obligations.
VILSACK: So there really isn't a confusion about this or an inconsistency.
MORRIS: Secretary Vilsack again. He says that by law meat inspectors are required to work for the government, not companies they inspect. But he says if sequestration forces across-the-board cuts, then the USDA won't have the funds it planned on using to pay inspectors. They'll have to work less, leaving food processing companies no choice but to cut back. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.