The measure was planted in the farm bill by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), according to congressional staffers familiar with the bill. It would be a boon to small meat processing companies whose products must remain in the state of origin because they lack a federal inspection stamp.
Consumer advocates and a federal meat inspectors union oppose the measure, which is now under consideration in the Senate. They say that state inspection standards vary widely and that the federal inspection requirement ensures food safety.
Under current law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects and regulates the interstate sale of beef and poultry. Inspectors are present in many large and medium meat plants. Some states also regulate meat production, but only for products that stay within that state's jurisdiction.
Stan Painter, a USDA inspector and an official with the American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents federal meat inspectors, said that small plants can apply to have a federal inspector present.
"I'm not sure the smaller plants are capable of meeting federal standard," Painter said.
The debate over the state inspections is unfolding during the recall of 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Topps Meat Co. of Elizabeth, N.J., because of E. coli contamination. The Topps frozen hamburger patties were sold in eight states under different labels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Illinois is not among the states named in the recall.
The recall of 331,582 pounds of Topps meat was announced Sept. 25 after New York state health authorities confirmed the presence of E. coli 0157:H7 in a Topps hamburger.
E. coli is a possibly deadly bacterium that causes bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps and dehydration.
The Topps recall was expanded considerably on Saturday, to 21.7 million pounds of hamburger, after more illnesses were reported. Last Wednesday, USDA inspectors issued a notice of suspension to Topps affecting its ground beef production line because of "inadequate raw ground controls," according to Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman.
Other large beef recalls include a 2002 action by Con Agra, which recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef because of E. coli, and a 1997 recall of 25 million pounds of beef made by Hudson Foods.
So far this year, the Department of Agriculture has issued recall announcements involving nearly 28 million pounds of ground beef.
In the Topps case, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service reported, "There are currently 25 illnesses under investigation in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania."
The Topps case is the latest in a year of increased ground beef recalls, nearly all of them due to E. coli poisoning. Topps does not slaughter its own beef but buys hamburger ingredients from outside suppliers, according to the USDA's Eamich.
Topps is a large-enough meat processor to require the presence of one of the USDA's 6,500 meat inspectors in its plant. But many companies aren't that big. The requirement for a USDA inspection and stamp on meat that will be sold interstate hampers sales for smaller meat processors, according to beef industry advocates.
That restriction is what led Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to introduce a farm bill amendment that would lift the federal inspection requirement, a congressional staffer said.
"He's concerned because in Minnesota they feel their inspections are up to the standards of the federal system," said one agriculture committee staff member.
But some states don't have meat inspection laws; several rely on USDA inspectors for that service.
Under the proposed farm bill change, those states would have to establish their own inspection programs.
Other states, such as Illinois, have their own meat inspection programs. But it would have to apply federal standards if the farm bill proposal passes.
That proposed change in inspection authority has irked the meat inspectors union, whose members work in meat processing plants.
In a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, the union argues the change "would seriously endanger food safety by weakening the USDA federal meat and poultry inspection program and by increasing reliance on the more lenient, institutionally weaker state inspection programs -- at a time when our nation's food supply is subject to increased risks from both accidental and intentional adulteration."
Harkin, whose committee is considering the farm bill, has signaled displeasure with the proposed inspection change.
In a written response to questions about the change, he said, "It's important to help small and very small plants ship in interstate commerce. However, simply changing the existing law is very complex and will require careful consideration of food safety, additional federal oversight of the state systems and will complicate trade."