The U.S. Senate's passage of an amendment to provide flexibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to prevent furloughs of front-line food safety inspectors at federally inspected meat and poultry plants has drawn the applause of meat and poultry groups.

The amendment was introduced by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Prior, D-Ark.

"The National Chicken Council 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 council 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. Senators Pryor, Blunt, (Chris) Coons, (Tom) Carper and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman (Barbara) Mikulski and Ranking Member (Richard) Shelby are to be commended for their bipartisan leadership and their work to avoid this potential crisis."

"The Senate's bipartisan action was an important step in ensuring the nation's turkey plants continue to operate on a full schedule for the rest of the year," said National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger. "The threat of furloughs is not completely gone, but we are hopeful the House will concur in the Senate's action, and USDA then will take the steps necessary to cancel the planned furloughs."

The Senate passed the bipartisan amendment on March 20, with the House expected to vote on the measure as soon as March 21. President Barack Obama, according to the Associated Press, is expected to approve the bill.

The $55 million in funding provided in the bill will not exempt the Food Safety and Inspection Service from sequester cuts, but it will put additional funding back into the account in order to try to prevent furloughs of front-line food safety inspectors, who are deemed "essential" federal employees.

"We are gratified that lawmakers recognized the essential nature of meat and poultry inspection by taking this step to prevent inspector furloughs," said American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle. 

Brandenberger said furloughs would have idled plants for one day per week, which would have caused a major disruption in turkey production and economic harm to farmers who raise turkeys, and the feed for turkeys, as well as employees who process and transport the poultry products. Ultimately, he said, it would also harm the American consumer, who likely would see food prices increase as the food supply tightened.