USDA proposes regs on interstate meat shipmentWritten by Christy Hemken
Under the proposed rules, state-inspected establishments would be eligible to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce.
Despite some alterations to existing rules, members of the small processing plant industry in Wyoming, along with about half of the other states, aren’t yet making any movements to modify their business plans.
“As far as the process goes, it’s a step ahead, but as far as where Wyoming stands currently, it probably does not provide a lot more opportunity than we had in the recent past,” says Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director Jason Fearneyhough.
“We know some people who are working closely with the legislation, and they say we’re looking at two years before the program will be offered,” says Heather Couture, a manager of Cody Meat in Cody. “When the 2008 farm bill came out, there was a knee-jerk reaction in thinking interstate shipment would happen immediately, but it won’t.”
“The reason we have an issue with the proposed regulations is they’re requiring identical inspection practices in state plants, while foreign countries only have to be ‘equal to,’” says Fearneyhough, who recently returned from the annual gathering of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture where the proposed regulations were discussed.
According to USDA, the new program was created to supplement the existing federal-state cooperative inspection program to allow state-inspected plants with 25 or fewer employees to ship products across state lines. Fearneyhough says that all the plants in Wyoming qualify with less than 25 employees.
Fearneyhough says the problem Wyoming has currently is the processing plants meeting inspection. “The issue is more the physical plants themselves meeting inspection. The intricacies of the plant buildings themselves cannot meet the requirements they’re putting forth.”
The proposed regulations are intended to coincide with the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which seeks to better connect consumers with local producers to help develop local and regional food systems to spur economic opportunity.
“By successfully restoring the link between consumers with local producers there can be new income opportunities for farmers and generate wealth that will stay in rural communities; a greater focus on sustainable agricultural practices; and families can better access healthy, fresh, locally grown food,” states a USDA release.
Under the proposed rule, selected establishments will receive inspection services from federally trained and/or supervised state inspectors who will verify that the establishments meet all federal food safety requirements. Meat and poultry products produced under the voluntary cooperative program will bear an official USDA mark of inspection, thereby enabling interstate shipment.
Currently, 27 states operate state meat or poultry inspection programs, and FSIS verifies that the state programs are implementing requirements that are “at least equal to” those imposed under the federal meat and poultry products inspection acts.
Couture says the federal government conducted a nationwide review to find if states did meet standards, and that Wyoming received a passing grade for three consecutive years.
The larger packers have opposed the new opportunities for small processing plants, viewing them as competition. “About half of the other states have a problem with their small processing plants, too,” says Fearneyhough. “The other half are where the politics come into play, because they have the large meat plants and union labor. They see the small plants as competition, and they may be, but it’s very small competition.”
“There’s an incredible amount of scrutiny on these new regulations,” says Couture. “There’s a lot of opposition, so I think they’ll take a long time.”
Fearneyhough says opportunity may be created down the road, but the question is if Wyoming’s plant owners want to go to the extra expense to upgrade their plants and ship out of state.
“I think it’s fair to say that because they’ve looked at changing the rule they’re more flexible than they were, but we still have a ways to go,” says Fearneyhough.
Comments on the proposed interstate meat shipment regulations must be received on or before Nov. 16 through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov, by mail to: FSIS Docket Room, USDA, FSIS, OPPD, Docket Clearance Unit, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Stop 5272, Beltsville, MD 20705.
All comments must identify FSIS and the docket number FSIS-2008-0039. Comments will be available for viewing online at www.fsis.usda.gov.