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Small Meat Gets Close To Cross-Border Sales

The 27 states that operate their own meat and poultry inspection for meat and poultry sold within a single state are about to get new markets for their products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) Wednesday published new regulations in the Federal Register that could make those state-inspected plants eligible to ship meat and poultry in interstate commerce.

An announcement from the FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs office says the new program will allow state-inspected plants with 25 or fewer employees to ship products across state lines.

The change in state and federal cooperative inspection agreements was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill and made part of USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.  The goal is to better connect consumers to local producers and develop local and regional food systems to spur economic opportunity, USDA says.

Small plants whose products are inspected under state inspection programs that are “at least equal to” those imposed under the Federal meat and poultry inspection acts will be eligible introduce their products into interstate commerce.

“This new cooperative interstate shipment program will provide new economic opportunities for many small and very small meat and poultry establishments, whose markets are currently limited,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Jerold Mande.  “We can provide new markets for these establishments, while maintaining the integrity of the Federal mark of inspection.”

Both FSIS and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have cooperative agreements with state inspection programs.  FDA’s agreement with Texas, for example, gives the state responsibility for inspecting food-processing plants like the Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA’s) facility in Plainview.  But Texas inspectors never knew it was there until PCA sparked the largest recall of peanut products in U.S. history.

For inspection programs that qualify, FSIS will provide up to 50 percent of the state’s operating funds and USDA will provide oversight and enforcement.  USDA will also provide training and supervision for the state programs.  In exchange, the meat and poultry products from these state-inspected small plants will be eligible to carry the USDA mark of inspection to make interstate shipment legal.

State-inspected plants with more than 25 employees and those not selected for the program will continue to be limited to in-state sales only.

States inspect 1,976 facilities, consisting of mostly small, family-owned meat processors.  The state-inspected facilities provide services to smaller scale farms and for those with niche markets such as grass-fed beef or pasture-raised pork.  More than half of the small plants are located in the 11 upper Midwest states.

Many food safety advocates have opposed opening interstate commerce to these small plants.  North Dakota, which inspects 13 small plants, has the dual goal “to ensure the safety of meat and poultry products sold in interstate commerce, and to open new markets for products from smaller, state-inspected companies,” says state Agricultural Commissioner Roger Johnson.

The states have also pointed to the fact that foreign-inspected meat can be sold anywhere in the U.S.

The public will have until Monday, Nov. 16, 2009 to comment on the new regulations through either the Federal Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov or via mail to: FSIS Docket Room, USDA, FSIS, OPPD, Docket Clearance Unit, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Stop 5272, Beltsville, MD  20705.

Comments must identify FSIS and the docket number, FSIS-2008-0039.  Comments may be viewed online at www.fsis.usda.gov.

The contact for further information is Philip Derfler, Assistant Administrator, Office of Policy and Program Development at (202) 720-2709.  His fax number is (202) 720-2025.

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