COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa (AP) — Automatic federal budget reductions set to take effect today could fall like a meat ax on the small Iowa town of Columbus Junction, where a sprawling Tyson Foods hog-processing plant dominates the economy.
The White House has warned that 6,300 meat and poultry plants could slow production or temporarily shut down under the across-the-board cuts, which may force the Agriculture Department to furlough meat inspectors. By law, those plants cannot operate without Food Safety and Inspection Service workers present to ensure products are safe for consumption.
Critics say the warnings of shutdowns are exaggerated and their likelihood is slim. But if they happen, the pain would disproportionately hurt meatpacking towns such as Columbus Junction, a city of 1,900 in southeastern Iowa that has long been driven by the gritty business of turning Iowa's nation-leading hog population into food.
Many of the plant's 1,200 workers, including sizable communities of Latinos and Chin refugees from Myanmar, would temporarily lose income from jobs that start at roughly $13 per hour.
The ethnic stores and restaurants, shops and gas stations would lose customers.
Farmers who sell more than $400 million per year in hogs to the plant could be forced to keep them longer than they were expecting, driving up feed prices and cutting into profits.
“Oh, my God. I don't want to think about it. That's going to affect the little businesses like us,” said Griceli Amigon, 45,owner of Rey de Reyes, a downtown Mexican grocery store.
Amigon said 95 percent of her customers work at the Tyson plant.“I'm going to pray nothing happens,” she said.
Mayor Daniel Wilson said a temporary shutdown would “be a short-term bump in the road.”
As she worked at a market near the Tyson plant, clerk Debi Wilson said the impact of a plant shutdown would be devastating.
“This shouldn't be going on. They should have had their act together a long time ago,” she said of lawmakers.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.