Ohio this week became the first state to gain approval to sell meat from small, state-inspected slaughterhouses across state lines — a critical step toward rebuilding processing infrastructure for small-scale, regional meat and poultry producers. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced the news Thursday at a local foods conference hosted by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The announcement marks the first state approval under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program, which allows small, state-inspected businesses with 25 or fewer employees to sell their products across state lines if they meet certain food safety requirements. Previously, state-inspected meat and poultry products could only be sold within the same state. Supporting small meat processors has been “one of the focal points” of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, said Merrigan. “It makes sense for the economy and job creation,” said the Deputy Secretary in an interview with Food Safety News. “There’s a demand for it.” Part of supporting local and regional meat processing meant taking a critical look at some food safety regulations. For example, Merrigan said that even though there has been a growing interest in mobile slaughter units, the rules that might apply to the slaughterhouses-on-wheels were unclear. As part of KYF, FSIS has hosted webinars and information sessions on mobile slaughter and promoted its Small Plant Help Desk to assist small businesses with regulatory questions. The new cooperative program takes the USDA’s support of local and regional meat production to the next level by breaking down state barriers and giving small and very small plants a wider market. “There are foodsheds, or food systems, that don’t really fit within those black state lines on the map. I think we’ll see a lot of job growth and excitement in border states,” said Merrigan, who pointed to Great Lakes Smoked Meats in Lorraine, Ohio as one business that expects to benefit. Now they will be able to sell their meat to neighboring Pennsylvania, including the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia markets. Merrigan said the company expects to triple its bottom line. The move to allow states to establish that they meet USDA standards — much like foreign countries do if they are approve to export meat to the United States — is a welcome development for many state agriculture officials who have long argued for such a program. “Our small meat and poultry plants that fall under state inspection do a great job of producing safe food and this announcement by USDA is the first step in allowing some interstate shipment of these safe products,” said Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. “There are still concerns about how workable this program will be for some states, but it is good news that USDA is going forward and at least one state has now qualified to implement the program for those small facilities interested in interstate shipment from Ohio.” Twenty-seven states have their own meat inspection programs, but just having one in place does not necessarily allow states to be eligible for the new cooperative program, which will give state-inspected products the federal mark of inspection. According to FSIS, participating state programs have to demonstrate that they are essentially equivalent to federal inspection. States have to have sufficient staff — who have to be “properly trained in Federal inspection methodology” — as well as the right equipment for their state inspectors, including computers and the supplies needed for collecting samples for testing. State inspectors need to have the same tools at their disposal because, under the cooperative program, they operate under the same regulatory sampling programs as federally-inspected plants. This also means that states must have the lab capacity to analyze product samples for a range of chemical, microbiological and disease threats. Lauren Gwin, a research and extension faculty member at Oregon State University who helps run the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, congratulated Ohio for making it through the process, which a took a year and “involved extensive evaluation,” but also questioned whether the program could be more flexible. “Without taking anything away from Ohio’s accomplishment, we still wonder why it wouldn’t be more straightforward, and potentially less expensive overall, for individual plants simply to apply for federal inspection,” said Gwin. “They’ll have to meet federal standards anyway to qualify for [Cooperative Interstate Shipment]. And CIS has some limits on plant size, which could limit expansion opportunities.” Merrigan admitted that breaking down regulatory and logistical barriers for small meat plants was not easy. “This has not been a simple process, it’s been a long time coming,” she said. “This is a celebration.” FSIS said there are four other states that have expressed interest in the program.