Farm bill may ease rules for meat processors

US - When Greg and Jolene Heikens decided to expand their Iowa meat-processing business, they found they had to switch from having state to federal inspectors.
calendar icon 14 August 2007
clock icon 3 minute read
Jolene Heikens, co-owner of Triple T Specialty Meats of Wellsburg, holds a slab of bacon at the Iowa Meat Processors Association's competition for cured meats at the Iowa State Fairgrounds recently. Triple T's contest entry, artisan dry-cured bacon, is produced for VandeRose Foods.

Meat and poultry processors can't legally ship their products out of the state unless federal inspectors regulate their plants, and that discourages supermarket chains from selling state-inspected products, said Jolene Heikens. Those products often come from small processors that cater to family-run farms and ranches.

"We ended up going federal because we felt we had no choice," she said. But becoming federally inspected is too expensive and time consuming, processors say.

That would no longer be necessary under a provision farm-state Democrats inserted in the House-passed farm bill. The legislation would allow state-inspected meat processors to start selling their products outside the state.

Twenty-seven states, including Iowa, have their own inspection programs.

"State-inspected facilities are every bit as safe as the federally-inspected facilities," said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

Consumer activists aren't so sure, and they say that allowing interstate shipment of state-inspected products could encourage plants to drop out of the federal system operated by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Consumer groups say it's also not clear how a state inspection agency would enforce a recall of products that have been sold in other states.

The legislation "would lower food safety standards and increase the risk of food poisoning in the U.S.," the Consumer Federation of America and other consumer groups said in a letter to members of Congress.

The letter also was signed by trade unions that represent meat-processing workers and USDA inspectors.

New Mexico disbanded its inspection system this year after the USDA challenged the adequacy of its regulation.

The USDA also found problems in several other states - including Mississippi, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota - during a review of state programs, according to the department's Inspector General Phyllis Fong.

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