State-inspected rule pushed
Casper — The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement a rule that would allow the shipment of state-inspected meat and to do so in a beneficial manner.
According to a NASDA letter directed to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the group holds there are “three serious issues that must be resolved before the federal/state partnership is irreparably damaged.”
The letter, sent March 6, focuses on the interstate sales and shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry products, saying that’s something NASDA has supported for 30 years. According to a press release, the letter urges the USDA to diligently and swiftly implement the new Title V interstate meat shipment program under the 2008 Farm Bill.
The three points of concern on which NASDA focuses are: FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) has no standard measure “equal to” criteria because the audit branch does not include federally inspected plants in its review system; FSIS has exceeded its statutory authority by requiring state programs to address all federal directives, notices and policies; and FSIS continually changes it expectations of state programs.
“We support and welcome reasonable measures to ensure state inspection programs operate at the prescribed standards. However, federal auditors must use established federal inspection standards to determine ‘equal to’ standards of state inspection programs,” NASDA says in the letter. “It is simply unfair for state inspection programs to be subject to a moving standards target. Standards must be clear and applied equally to both federal and state inspection programs.”
Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Director John Etchepare says last-minute negotiations on Title V weakened its language. He says one of his biggest concerns is that foreign meat packing plants only have to be “equal-to” federal standards, but state-inspected plants have to meet standards exactly the same as federal standards in federal plants.
“In some of our plants that’s almost impossible, and they’re not issues that have anything to do with health and sanitation,” he says. “We have to play by much tougher rules than foreign countries.” Meat and poultry from 38 foreign countries can be freely shipped and sold anywhere in the U.S.
“It’s hard for us to get anybody to qualify in our small plants under the current system. If we can get the ‘equal-to’ standards, we’re meeting those,” he notes.
He says Wyoming has an even bigger problem than other states because there are no federal plants in the state. “Nobody can pay to meet that standard,” he says. There are 26 total states involved in the Title V legislation.
“In the letter we asked the USDA to not get tied up in bureaucracy when writing the rules and regulations for Title V that define the ‘equal to’ status,” says Etchepare. “We asked them to instead worry about health and protecting the public, to keep those levels where they need to be but allow the small plants to ship interstate.”
A letter to NASDA from WDA’s Consumer Health Services Program manager Dean Finkenbinder also expressed concerns with some of the program’s technical aspects, such as reimbursement of inspection costs for state plants, the extent of the authority of the federal employee appointed state coordinator for each state and what happens if a plant is found to be in violation.
An inconsistency between federal agencies – USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – is that bison, emus and farm-raised elk are regulated by the FDA and can therefore be processed in state-inspected plants and shipped interstate. “Those are two entities that don’t talk to each other on a federal basis, and it’s a huge conflict between USDA and FDA,” says Etchepare.
In opposition to interstate sales have been the Consumer Federation of America and the American Federation of Government Employees. According to them, “meat and poultry interests want to weaken food safety standards and stop federal inspection of meat and poultry.”
In a press release, they state, “For more than 100 years USDA has been working to keep us safe from deadly diseases caused by contaminated meat. Now meat and poultry interests want to allow meat processors to avoid federal inspections. They just convinced the U.S. House to open new loopholes that could keep federal inspectors out of thousands of meat processing plants.”
According to NASDA, there has never been a documented food-borne illness from state-inspected meat and poultry products. They say a recent recall involving 25 illnesses and 21.7 million pounds of ground beef potentially contaminated with E. coli was inspected and passed by federal inspectors.
Other state-inspected food products, including dairy, milk, fruit, vegetables, fish and seafood are freely marketed across the country – only meat and poultry are restricted.
“American consumers deserve greater access to safe, nutritious products from state-inspected meat and poultry processors, and American livestock producers deserve fair marketing opportunities to sell their high-quality products,” says NASDA.
Currently the interstate meat shipment program awaits development of rules and regulations by the USDA. Etchepare says he hopes to hear a response from Vilsack before the rules and regulations are written.
“Instead of writing these rules in a vacuum we’ve asked they allow us to participate, and I’ve asked that WDA play in that role,” he says, adding that Vilsack has indicated the USDA will move quickly on the issue.
If the final rules and regulations remain too stringent and demand that small processing facilities be identical to brand-new USDA plants, Etchepare says it will remain very hard for Wyoming processors to play in the game, simply because of the large up-front investment.
“In the last two years Wyoming has passed federal inspection with flying colors. Our small producers are doing a good job,” he adds. “It’s really important to Wyoming to get this passed because it would open huge markets for our people. We do have big processors, and we may never, because we don’t have the volume of fed cattle and sheep in the state to attract someone like Smith Foods to build a massive packing plant”
Etchepare concludes by asking the 30-year-old question: “If we’re meeting the federal standards, why can’t we sell across state lines?”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.