Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the opening of its new help desk for small meat, poultry, and processed egg producers to help them comply with agency requirements. 

The help desk will also be a resource for state and local food regulators.

“USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is committed to providing assistance to businesses of all sizes that provide American consumers with access to a safe and healthy food supply,” said Deputy Under Secretary (and acting Under Secretary) for Food Safety, Jerold Mande. “The small plant help-desk will help the development of small, local producers by offering a one-stop shop for questions about how to make sure their meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled.”

butcher.jpgAccording to the USDA, the new resource supports the agency’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative to support small and mid-sized farmers by helping small processors reduce the time and expense of dealing with agency requirements.

“We applaud USDA for opening a help desk for small meat and poultry plants,” Aimee Witteman, spokesperson for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), one of the leading advocates for small and sustainable farms, told Food Safety News. 

Witteman sees the potential for the help desk to allow small processors expand their market, “It’s a welcomed and necessary first step to support the small plants that are currently state-inspected, explore what they need to do to become compliant with federal standards so they can eventually market their product across state lines.”

Some in the food and agriculture world are not so optimistic. 

John Munsell, a former small-scale meat processor and long time critic of USDA’s regulatory policies, sees the help desk as inconsequential at best.

“USDA has the tendency to respond to legitimate problems by publicly rolling out news releases which are, in my mind, solely intended to portray a PR image that the agency is aggressively addressing problems with bold new initiatives,” said Munsell. “My perception is that this new toll-free line continues the same disingenuous promulgations.”

“Until existing management at USDA’s Meat Inspection Service embrace a more cordial relationship with and attitude towards small plant issues, the number of small plants will continue to dwindle,” added Munsell.

According to the agency, more than 90 percent of the 6,000 plants inspected by FSIS are “small or very small.”

The help desk, which is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. EST Monday through Friday, can be reached at 1-877-374-7435 or at