Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, testifying before the House Committee on Agriculture on March 5, affirmed the sequester mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and that took effect March 1 will require a 5.1% reduction in spending in fiscal 2013 for each U.S. Department of Agriculture program whose funding is categorized as discretionary, which would include some key food safety and nutrition programs. The discretionary spending reductions for the entire fiscal year will have to be made during the remaining seven months of the year, which would effectively reduce March-September spending on the programs by an estimated 10% to 12%. Discretionary spending accounts for about 16% of the total U.S.D.A. budget.

Committee members pressed Mr. Vilsack on his earlier comments indicating the sequester will require each Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspector to be furloughed about 15 days during the remainder of fiscal year 2013. The congressmen asserted meat inspectors were essential employees as meat processing plants may not operate if inspectors are not present, and they asked if there wasn’t flexibility to keep them on the job in meat plants across the country and cut from somewhere else.

Mr. Vilsack said it was not a question of whether meat inspectors were essential or not. He agreed they were. It was a question of whether there were funds appropriated in their program areas, in this case, food safety, to keep them on the production lines.

There currently are about 8,400 F.S.I.S. in-plant meat inspectors and other front-line federal personnel located at approximately 6,290 slaughtering and processing plants and import houses and other federally regulated facilities.

F.S.I.S. meat inspection is funded as a discretionary program, which means Congress must appropriate funds each year to operate the program. Funding for F.S.I.S. meat inspection recently has been at about $890 million a year. Mr. Vilsack said 87% of the U.S.D.A.’s overall food safety budget was earmarked to employ the meat inspectors, and because of the way the sequester was written, there was virtually no flexibility that may be found to avoid a furlough of meat inspectors.

There are some U.S.D.A. discretionary program areas and offices that have several budget line items that may provide at least some flexibility in targeting which functions might be less damaging to cut than others. But the U.S.D.A.’s food safety budget was almost exclusively used to employ inspectors. Furloughs, Mr. Vilsack said, was the only recourse to realize the required spending reduction.

Mr. Vilsack also pointed out the furlough process itself was complicated and may result in increased production disruptions at meat plants toward the end of the fiscal year. This was because under law, the U.S.D.A. must give a 30-day notice to unions representing the meat inspectors, and to each meat inspector individually, of the intent to initiate the furlough process. Only after that notice is delivered and a designated process of addressing individuals’ concerns completed will the U.S.D.A. and meat inspector unions be able to negotiate how the furloughs will be implemented. This may push the actual furloughs toward the end of the fiscal year.

Committee members asked few questions about the impact of sequestration on the nation’s nutrition programs, but several initiatives will be adversely affected, in particular, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

The nation’s largest nutrition programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the former Food Stamp Program) and the National School Lunch Program are programs open to all who qualify, and their funding is mandatory. But the funding for several other important nutrition programs is considered discretionary.

The U.S.D.A.’s largest discretionary spending program is WIC, which helps improve the health and nutrition of low-income pregnant, breast-feeding and post-partum women, infants and children up to their fifth birthdays. WIC provides participants with vouchers redeemable for foods dense in nutrients known to be lacking in the diets of eligible groups and provides nutritional education and referrals.

WIC’s first full year of operation was 1975 when it served 344,000 individuals. The program expanded steadily since then with participation peaking at 9,175,000 individuals in fiscal year 2010.

The largest increase in participation occurred during the recent recession. Participation declined narrowly during the past two fiscal years with program advocates suggesting some former program participants may have found work in the slowly expanding economy.

Spending on WIC in fiscal 2012 was estimated at $6,853 million. Of that total, the value of food purchased by participants was estimated at $4,813.4 million. The remaining funding related to providing nutrition education, preventive and coordination services (such as health care) and promotion of breastfeeding and immunization.

The U.S.D.A. indicated because of the sequester, 600,000 otherwise eligible persons may be turned away from the program this fiscal year. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested the number of low-income individuals that may be denied participation in the program may reach 775,000 this fiscal year.

U.S. foreign food assistance and nutrition programs also fall under the discretionary program category and will see program funding reduced. These include the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program (a school-feeding program modeled after the U.S. school lunch programs) and Food for Peace, P.L.480 Title II, the nation’s principal foreign food assistance program.