State-inspected meat plants may soon, finally, have access to interstate sales

By Kyle Sharp

State-inspected meat plants may soon, finally, have access to interstate sales.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced a final rule April 19 that will broaden the market for smaller state-inspected plants. By participating in this voluntary cooperative interstate shipment program, select establishments will have the option to ship meat and poultry products, bearing an official USDA mark of inspection, across state lines.

“We’re excited to announce this new rule that offers smaller plants the opportunity to expand their market and sell their products to new customers,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “Allowing these state-inspected establishments to ship their products across state lines has the potential to expand rural development and jobs, increase local tax bases, strengthen rural communities, and ensure that food is safe for consumers.”

While that sounds like great news, most state-inspected processors are taking a “wait and see” approach.

“I’ve learned not to get my hopes up,” said Mike Jessee, Ohio Association of Meat Processors (OAMP) president and owner of Dee-Jay’s Custom Meats, Fredericktown. “Every so often they throw us a bone, then you don’t hear anything about it for another two or three years.”

Jessee’s apprehension is understandable. In February 1997, OAMP and the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) filed a lawsuit with USDA to allow state-inspected meat and poultry to be shipped across state lines, but without success. The 2008 Farm Bill finally instructed USDA and FSIS to start developing a rule for interstate shipment of state-inspected meat. A rule was developed and public comments received in 2009, but nothing else was heard until the final rule announcement on April 19.

“I’m hopeful, but who knows,” Jessee said. “It would be great if we could do it, especially for the plants that are on the border of our state. For me, we’re in the middle of the state, but it would be nice to have a website and be able to take orders and sell product outside Ohio.”

State-inspected plants have been hesitant to shift to federal inspection in the past because their processing schedule could be more restricted, and it costs money every time a federal inspector is at the plant, Jessee said. That is why the goal has been to get state-inspected products cleared for interstate sales.

It appears the wait is finally about over. The FSIS final rule is available at www.fsis.usda.gov/regulations_&_policies/Interim_&_Final_Rules/index.asp and will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, which had not yet happened at press time.

“We’ve been waiting on this for quite some time,” said Mike Hockman, chief of the ODA Division of Meat Inspection. “I think it’s good. We estimate 10 to 15 plants in Ohio will want to do this, particularly those on the border. This will be very beneficial to them.”

In participating states such as Ohio, state-inspected establishments that apply and are selected to take part in this program will be required to comply with all federal standards under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). These establishments will receive inspection services from state inspection personnel who have been trained in the requirements of the FMIA and PPIA.

Hockman said he is still waiting to hear from USDA exactly what Ohio will need to do to meet the program guidelines, but he does not see it being a big concern.

“Ohio has been judged since 1969 to be ‘equal to’ the federal program,” he said. “Each year we get a letter from USDA certifying we are ‘equal to.’ This law requires we be ‘same as,’ and I’m still trying to get the federal folks to tell me what we need to do to be ‘same as.’ To me, the two are synonymous.”

The difference could involve clarifying some laboratory procedures, or simply requiring the state inspectors to use federal inspection forms, Hockman said. State inspectors may need some “brush up” training in some areas, and in-depth reviews may need to be done on interested plants that apply.

Hockman is pleased with the changes that were made to the final rule compared to the initial rule announced in 2009. The final rule seems more cooperative, he said, with the state supervisor for federal inspection overseeing what is done, but the plants working mainly with their standard state inspectors. The initial rule had the federal supervisor doing most everything.

ODA intended to send a survey to state plants in late April to gauge interest, in order to start the planning process, Hockman said.

The ODA Division of Meat Inspection oversees 283 slaughter and processing facilities in Ohio. Ohio is one of 27 states to have a state meat inspection program. Ohio’s program works with companies to provide specialized instruction and explain the laws to get up-and-coming companies into compliance. This level of personalized attention would be nearly impossible for a federal inspection program to provide, Hockman said.

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