Concerns remain with finalized rules for program allowing for interstate sale of state-inspected meat

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No.5: May 2011

The final regulations for a program that will allow the interstate sale of state-inspected meat do little to address some of the concerns raised by state lawmakers when the preliminary rules were first released in 2009.

Allowing for such interstate sales was a hard-fought victory for smaller meat processors and those who had long advocated for it. The Midwestern Legislative Conference — led by its Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee — was among the groups that pushed for a repeal of the interstate ban. The repeal was included in the 2008 farm bill.

But will the new program and its regulations be workable?

State meat-inspection programs generally serve smaller meat processors and, in order to operate, have traditionally had to meet safety standards “at least equal” to those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Ever since the preliminary rules were introduced, concerns have been raised about language regarding food safety standards: Instead of being “at least equal” to the federal program’s standards, the state programs have to be “the same.” This subtle change means that every time the federal program updates anything, even computers, the states must do the same.

As a result, instead of allowing for the interstate shipment of state-inspected products, the USDA’s regulations set up another federal inspection system under more stringent and inflexible provisions than the current federal system, members of the MLC committee said when the preliminary rules were introduced.

The final regulations for the program do nothing to address these concerns.

Another concern raised by state legislators involved provisions in the rules that limited participation to facilities with 25 or fewer employees — not just full-time employees or processing employees, but all workers. Under the final regulations, the 25-employee limit is retained, but workers whose duties do not involve handling any products will not be included in the limit. The same goes for unpaid volunteers.

A third concern about the regulations seems to have been addressed: Processors who opt to participate in the new program and its rules will be able to “opt out,” forgoing interstate shipments and sales and instead simply participating under the old rules for existing state programs. (Under the preliminary rules, this leeway was not provided to a plant wanting out of the new program.)

Nine of the 11 Midwestern states had inspection programs in place as of the beginning of this year. As of late April, it appeared Nebraska would become the 10th Midwestern state with passage of LB 305.