Where’s the beef? Ag groups push to end restriction on meat, poultry

Roger Johnson, president of the organization and the North Dakota ag commissioner, said the restriction is outdated, punitive and senseless.

In the first place, state inspections, by law, must meet or exceed federal inspection standards, he said. And imported meat and poultry from 38 foreign countries with far less rigorous safety inspection standards than state inspection programs can be freely shipped and sold anywhere in the United States.

“There are many reasons why the restriction on interstate meat sales doesn’t make sense,” Johnson said. “No other food commodities inspected by state authorities are prohibited from being shipped across state lines. Other state-inspected food products, including perishable items such as milk, dairy products, fruit, vegetables, fish, and shellfish, are marketed freely across the country.”

Even other state-inspected meats such as bison, elk, venison, rabbit, pheasant, and quail can be shipped with no restriction, he added.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis agrees.

"We allow imported meat products from other parts of the world but are not allowed to sell North Dakota products to South Dakota. That simply doesn’t make sense," Buis said. "The state inspection programs ensure safe, high-quality meat products are available to consumers."

NFU has a long-standing policy supporting the elimination of the interstate ban and believes the legislation will increase competition and opportunities vital to small farms and businesses, he said.

"Inadequate market competition is one of the greatest challenges facing independent livestock producers and a major reason why so many family farmers and ranchers have been forced out of business" Buis said.

Johnson said a provision in the House version of the 2007 Farm Bill would eliminate the interstate ban, and similar legislation is being considered by the Senate.

Opponents of ending the ban contend that action would jeopardize food safety. The Consumer Federation of America and The American Federation of Government Employees this week launched a national advertisement attacking state meat-inspection programs, Johnson said.

It contains a picture of a hamburger with the caption “would you like your hamburger with E. coli or without?”

“That ad contains false information and misleads the public by playing on readers’ fears,” Johnson said.

“The ad falsely implies that USDA ordered a recall of hamburger products from a state-inspected meat-processing plant for fear of E. coli contamination,” he said. “In fact, the plant in question was a federally inspected facility, and the plant itself recalled its products.”

The advertisement also claims the legislation now before Congress will keep federal inspectors out of thousands of processing plants and will allow meat processors to avoid federal inspections, he said.

“That is simply not true; the legislation says nothing about ending or reducing federal inspection, but does require state meat-inspection programs to continue meeting or exceeding all federal meat-inspection standards,” he said.

“This is not a food-safety issue at all, even though opponents are saying it is,” Johnson said. “This is about economic fairness, a marketing issue for these state-inspected (products). It has to meet all the federal standards yet is unable to move across state lines.”

He said state inspectors are trained under federal inspectors, and the plants are audited by USDA and have more oversight than federal plants.

“The case could be made states have tougher, more stringent inspections,” he added. “Pound for pound, state-inspected meat products receive more hands-on inspection than federal (inspected) products.”

The Consumer Federation, however, sees the legislation as “dismantling” the system in favor of state-by-state regulation and allowing state departments of agriculture to “expand their power.”

A press release from the organization states the legislation would also “vastly complicate future recalls by permitting up to 80 percent of all meat and poultry plants in the US to choose to be inspected by state governments rather than USDA.”

Johnson reiterated that state inspections would continue to meet or exceed federal standards, the USDA would still audit state plants, and that state and local agriculture and health officials already conduct 80 percent of all food safety inspections, including meat and poultry.

In regard to future recalls, he pointed out that USDA can only work in cooperation with the processor at federally inspected plants, whereas, state-inspection programs have the authority to order a recall.

NFU’s Buis said, “Often times, there are the perceptions that states are advocating lower standards, but we would never (advocate) jeopardizing food safety.”

This is about fairness, competition and opportunity for rural communities, he said.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association vice president of government affairs Jay Truitt said “No one would support legislation that would lessen food safety in this country.”

Those affected by the shipping restriction are “mostly family-owned businesses who have worked hard to establish their own identity and branded products.”

Johnson concurs, saying “Our state-inspected, locally-produced meats are some of the best, high quality specialty products in this country. They are mostly small, family-owned businesses who make popular and award-winning products such as bratwurst, smoked sausages, organic lamb, beef jerky and other ethnic specialty meat products.

The growth of the Internet allows these specialty products a spotlight online, but the producers can’t sell outside their own state.

That is why Idaho’s state meat-inspection program was repealed years ago, said Josh Tewalt, Idaho Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president.

“Without the ability to ship those products across state lines, there wasn’t any need for it,” he said.

If the restriction is lifted, however, Idaho would see a lot more of what are now custom processors branching out and more producers looking into value-added products - and, as a direct result, more competition.

“We support the legislation that is in Congress right now,” he added.

So does grassroots cattlemen’s organization R-CALF USA

“Current law discriminates against U.S. products and favors imports from foreign countries,” said R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard. “These small, family-owned businesses are simply asking for a fair and reasonable chance to expand their markets here at home, across state lines. This reform also is necessary to allow state-inspected meat plants to equitably compete with foreign meat plants that are not similarly restricted from engaging in interstate commerce here.”

In addition, consumer preferences are changing, say Buis and Truitt.

“There’s an under-the-radar movement to buy fresh, buy local, and in many cases, there aren’t nearby federally inspected plants,” Buis said. “We need to have a mechanism to have these animals inspected.”

“That’s an important part of the meat industry; we’re seeing shifts in consumer preference,” Truitt said. “Real opportunities are being missed.” This is one of those “sound common-sense issues in Washington, D.C., that get turned into a political football.”

Key points

- Perishable products n including milk and other dairy items, fruit, vegetables, and fish n are freely shipped across state lines after state inspection. But standard meat products, like poultry, beef and pork, are prohibited from interstate commerce, despite decades of meeting or surpassing the federal inspection standards.

- Currently, state-regulated meat and poultry inspection programs exist in 28 states. These programs serve about 2,100 small or very small establishments.

- The existing law penalizes smaller American companies while companies from as many as 38 foreign nations are permitted to sell meats freely in any state.

On the books

- The Talmadge-Aiken Act, adopted in 1962, was an effort to more closely coordinate federal and state laws that affected the flow of agriculture from the farm gate to the consumer. The law authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to enter into cooperative agreements with states to foster uniform administration of agricultural laws in general.

- The 1962 law was applied to meat in 1967 with passage of the Wholesome Meat Act, and to poultry the following year with passage of the Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968. These Acts greatly strengthened and updated the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957, improved intrastate inspection, and tightened controls over imported meat products.

- The 1967 Wholesome Meat Act and the 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Act require state inspection programs to be "at least equal to" the federal inspection program but limited sales of state-inspected meat and poultry to within the state in which they are inspected.

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