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Published March 21, 2013, 05:31 PM

Congress passes appropriations bill

Meat inspectors will stay on the job and farmers can sign up for the Conservation Stewardship Program under an appropriations bill that Congress passed before leaving for a two-week break.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Meat inspectors will stay on the job and farmers can sign up for the Conservation Stewardship Program under an appropriations bill that Congress passed before leaving for a two-week break.

The bill is a continuing resolution that funds the entire government through Sept. 30, but it includes the agriculture appropriations bill and an amendment to pay for meat inspectors who would have been furloughed because of budget cuts required under the Budget Control Act. The cuts are known as sequestration.

President Barack Obama was traveling in Israel, but he is expected to sign the bill before March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires.

The bill preserves most of the sequestration cuts, but also contains more money for the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC, so that all applicants to that program can be served.

The inclusion of the agriculture appropriations bill in the measure also means that farmers can enroll in the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that the first government funding bill for fiscal year 2013 shut off funding for the CSP and that farmers can enroll approximately 12 million acres of agricultural land in the program this year, an amount that will bring the program to a total of 62 million acres by year’s end.

CSP is a working lands conservation program that rewards farmers and ranchers for the environmental benefits they produce. Assistance is provided for actively managing and improving existing conservation systems and for implementing new conservation activities on land in agricultural production.

Meat inspectors’ provision

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised the meat inspectors’ provision, which originated in the Senate through an amendment sponsored by Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and ranking member Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

The Pryor-Blunt provision transfers $55 million to the Food Safety and Inspection Service from funding for school equipment grants and maintenance on buildings and facilities.

“Yesterday’s (March 20) action in the Senate is an acknowledgment that sequestration left USDA with no other option but to furlough meat inspectors,” Vilsack noted.

“The Senate has now voted to provide us with funding to help address those furloughs, but this action does not eliminate the critical need for Congress to find a responsible solution to sequestration through balanced deficit reduction.”

Vilsack was apparently referring to the fact that the Budget Control Act calls for similar cuts in future years.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., also praised passage of the bill and the meat inspector amendment.

“While continuing resolutions are not an ideal way to operate, the legislation passed today cuts wasteful Washington spending and avoids a government shutdown,” Aderholt said.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said it “applauds” passage of the continuing resolution with the meat inspector amendment, but also maintained that USDA should have used other legal authority to keep inspectors on the job.

“This is great news for every segment of American agriculture,” said NCBA President Scott George, a cattleman from Cody, Wyo.

“With this shift of finances, Congress was able to avoid the crisis created by the administration and keep FSIS inspectors in the plants where they belong. While cattlemen and women were disappointed Secretary Vilsack threw in the towel on his agency’s 107-year-old duty to provide federal food safety inspections, we sincerely thank Sens. Blunt and Pryor for ensuring the nation’s food supply will not be limited by politics.”

The National Chicken Council lauded the Senate’s inclusion of the amendment on Wednesday.

“NCC and our members recognize that sequestration presents significant challenges that require USDA and all other federal government agencies to make difficult decisions to prioritize resources,” said NCC President Mike Brown. “But cutting an essential, legally mandated program such as food safety inspection is not the way to address the government’s budget deficit.”

Through this process, NCC has contended that furloughing FSIS inspectors would be inconsistent with the mandates of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act, which prohibit the production, processing, or interstate distribution of meat, poultry and egg products without federal inspection.

“The amendment that passed today puts a fine point on the requirements of these mandates,” Brown added.

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