WASHINGTON (MCT) Under pressure from the meat industry and several states, Congress may be on the verge of eliminating a 40-year-old requirement that meat and poultry sold across state lines be federally inspected.
A little-noticed provision tacked on to the House farm bill passed in July would give states more authority to inspect meat and poultry and allow state-inspected meat to enter interstate commerce.
A lobbying battle is expected to erupt this week pitting states, farm groups and smaller meat packers against consumer groups and labor unions who warn that the change jeopardizes the safety of meat.
As it stands, 27 states Missouri and Illinois among them operate under federally supervised state systems requiring meat inspections "at least equal to" those conducted under federal rules.
Packers and processors in those states have the option of submitting to federal or state inspections. Usually, smaller operations choose state regulations. But their meat can't be sold beyond the state's borders or over the Internet.
For instance, Andy Cloud, who manages the family-owned Cloud Meats Inc., in Carthage Mo., lamented that even though his southwest Missouri business is less than 30 miles from Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, he can't sell meat to any of those states. Nor, he said, can his family take advantage of "the entire world of business" opened by the Internet.
States are supposed to be as rigorous in inspections as the federal government, but Cloud said federal visits can be more difficult and time-consuming for small operators.
"We're just a bunch of good old boys down here. Sometimes it takes special people to deal with all that," he said.
Missouri has been in the forefront of pushing for the change, arguing that about 35 processors in the state are disadvantaged by the rules, particularly in light of increased imports of foreign meat.
"If we want to open more markets up to American agriculture products abroad, we ought to start opening them at home first," House Minority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a chief sponsor of the new state-inspection rules, said in a statement.
While Illinois hasn't played a leading role, the Illinois Association of Meat Processors is among some 75 organizations that have joined a coalition pushing for the change.
The rules change was added late in the process to the House version of a new five-year farm bill without benefit of public hearings.
The action now moves to the Senate, where supporters will have to fend off assertions that the shift increases the risk of food-borne illness and threatens confidence in the food supply.
"There was a reason they passed the Wholesome Meat Act back in 1967," said Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant agriculture secretary and a fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. "So there would be a set of federal standards that everybody had to meet. With these changes, the government simply would not be able to vouch, day in and day out, for the safety of all these plants."
Skeptics of the proposed change point to a federal Agriculture Department Inspector General's Report in September 2006 raising questions about federal oversight of inspections in several states.
The report found that the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service had uneven and sometimes baffling methods of assessing states and was slow in making visits to review state procedures.
For instance, the investigative report questioned why Mississippi had received an overall favorable rating even though all 11 packing establishments randomly sampled there were found to have deficiencies such as "soot-like material on swine carcasses in coolers . . . and residues from previous days' operations."
Despite the warning signs, the federal government had not required a plan for corrective action from Mississippi, the inspector general noted.
The inspector general reported that in Missouri, the federal government concluded in 2003 that the state inspection program did not measure up to the federal system an assessment that was changed six months later.
The report noted that the federal review had not determined whether Missouri had an adequate system for evaluating and correcting employee performance or properly documented inspector evaluations.
Missouri State Agriculture Director Katie Smith said her office had no one available to discuss specifics of the report. She said noted that her state's meat inspections had been judged "at least equal to" the federal system.
Smith said she would expect at least a half-dozen more Missouri processors to switch to the state system if they have the prospect of a wider market.
"If we want to grow our industry, we can grow it through state-inspected facilities," she said.
The Agriculture Department has not taken a position on the proposed change, but raised questions in written comments distributed in Congress.
For instance, the comments noted that states might be able to operate for a year without being held accountable for changes that might be needed to meet public health requirements. The federal agency also raised the potential of confusion about food recalls.
"Who will have the authority over adulterated or misbranded state-inspected product once it enters interstate commerce, the states or the federal government? Who will track and seize produce and carry out investigations and enforcement of state-inspected product?" the Agriculture Department asked.