To his potatoes, Jon Tester has added some meat. The junior senator from Montana chose to share his thoughts on most of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current meat and poultry agenda in a letter released on the eve of the announcement that the under secretary for food safety is leaving. Sen. Tester in 2010 won an amendment that exempts many small fruit and vegetable producers from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The “Tester Amendment” has exemptions for small farmers and producers (annual sales of less than $500,000) and for those selling directly to consumers in the same state or within a 275-mile radius. (Tester and his wife produce organic spring and winter wheat, which is not sold directly to consumers, so his farm would fall under the FSMA.) In a Nov. 7 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the Montana Democrat has gone public with a multi- part agenda involving meat processing, expressing concern about USDA’s “activities involving meat processing which may advantage large meatpackers and processors at the expense of smaller domestic plants.” Items on Tester’s meat agenda include:

  • Restore the ban on four Chinese chicken-processing facilities that have been approved for exporting chickens slaughtered in the U.S., Canada or Brazil to American consumers.
  • Withdraw grants of equivalency from Canadian and Australian meat-processing facilities using HACCP-based (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) models on a pilot basis.
  • Delay adoption of rules that would modernize poultry inspection for the first time in almost 60 years until plants address space and technology concerns.
  • Reevaluate poultry plants operating under the pilot program known as HIMP.
  • Freeze the existing HIMP pilot for young or market hogs to the existing five plants. Tester says expansion would be “misguided and premature.”
  • Expand opportunities for small and local meat processing, which Montana’s ranching community is demanding.

Tester, who is missing three fingers on his left hand from a childhood encounter with a meat-grinder, says that meat processed in China should be kept out of the U.S. because there is no country-of-origin labeling for cooked product and the country has a poor food-safety record “from rat meat sold as mutton to melamine in milk.” The action he wants against Canada and Australia — also huge markets for American agricultural products — are based on his opinion that “equivalencies based on pilot practices should be ended until the practices are proven to protect safety in U.S. facilities first.” Tester cited the 2012 E. coli outbreak in Canada involving 8.8 million pounds of beef and several discoveries of contaminated Australian meat, but they are also used by USDA as examples of a system that is working because, in each instance, U.S. agricultural border personnel found the problems. Tester’s call for delay in the modernization of poultry-plant inspection is hardly new. Union and non-governmental groups with diverse agendas also want to delay or stop any change. Tester’s reasons for delay, that without time for technology change and facility expansions, the changes would favor larger processors at the expense of smaller poultry businesses, have not been as widely heard. On hogs, Tester noted that three of the five facilities in the HIMP pilot program were also in the top 10 with the worst health and safety violations from 2008-2111. A growing direct-sales market for meat is creating demand for small, local meat processors, he said. Tester closed his letter to Vilsack by stating that USDA’s recent actions are taking “rural America and consumer confidence in the wrong direction.” Montana has twice by narrow margins elected Tester to the U.S. Senate. The former president of the Montana Senate farms the land his grandfather homesteaded near Big Sandy in 1912. He serves on the Veterans’ Affairs, Homeland Security, Indian Affairs, Banking and Appropriations Committees.