Potentially higher meat prices and possible shortages have been averted with a bill that will avoid furloughing federal inspectors.

The reprieve came in a $55 million provision Congress included in a bill passed last week to fund the federal government through September. It will keep nearly 9,000 inspectors at 6,300 meat and poultry plants across the nation on the job.

Three weeks ago, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the inspectors would have to be furloughed for 11 days apiece between July and Oct. 1 to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget cuts required under sequestration.

Such layoffs, which could have shut some plants, raised concerns among consumers and restaurants about shortages and increased prices.

The provision, which will allow the Agriculture Department to transfer the $55 million to meat inspectors from other, undetermined areas of its budget, ended the need for furloughs, Vilsack said.

“This action in Congress is an acknowledgment that sequestration left USDA with no other option but to furlough meat inspectors,” Vilsack said.

Among meat industry officials and companies welcoming the decision was GNP, a St. Cloud, Minn.-based poultry processor formerly known as Gold ’n Plump, which has a 500-worker plant in Arcadia.

“Food safety is important to all of us, both consumers and our workers,” said Lexann Reischl, GNP’s corporate relations manager.

“Had something (furloughs) occurred, we would have had to have a reduction or a change of schedules,” she said.

“We realize that sequestration presents significant challenges,” Reischl said, “but cutting legally mandated safety measures such as meat inspections” is not the right course of action.

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