To remedy what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently called “a widespread lack of understanding” in validating Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems for meat processors of all sizes, the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a guidance this Spring to clarify some of the rules.

That guidance has set off a firestorm among small meat processors who worry increased testing and other scientific validation methods will prove costly and onerous.

The American Association of Meat Processors recently estimated that the initial cost could be as much as $12,000 per product line and then $3,600 per year. For many small and very small processors–which are in high demand with the burgeoning local and all natural food movement–the extra expense means they can’t compete.

In a media briefing last week focused on the agency’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, both Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made strong statements to calm fears raised by the guidance.

“That’s not accurate in terms of putting the folks out of business,” said Vilsack during the briefing. “This guidance is just simply clarifying and explaining what is already required. I think there was a belief that this was going to cost a substantial amount of money to comply with–the reality is that is not the case…there is a misunderstanding that this somehow creates new responsibilities and requirements.”

When asked if the guidance would mean more testing is required, Vilsack said “no, not necessarily” without skipping a beat, “that’s the mistake people are making about this.”

“This isn’t about new testing,” added Vilsack. “This is about making sure that people have…some scientifically valid basis for what what process they’re [using].”

Merrigan, who has become the champion of promoting local food at the agency by local food initiative, also added her two cents. “We don’t know every current situation, so we cant say that for sure [that no new testing will be required to validate]. But, part of it is on our watch,” she said. “I don’t think we did a very good job communicating on this and that created some confusion out there.”

According to Merrigan, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been in the process of contacting small plants to clarify the rules “so the hysteria will tap down.”

The agency has also released a fact sheet on validation to further clarify its position. “The draft guidance material on validation has caused a fair amount of concern,” reads the document. “We believe it will help everyone if we put to rest some of the misconceptions about the Agency’s expectations.”