Getting to the heart of state meat inspection law

mmm... meat.

OK, I admit that I was just looking for an animal body part reference for that title. I am under no illusions that this post will get to the heart of much of anything. I am not an expert on state-inspected meat processing (though if it gives me any leverage, I have been inside a number of state-inspected facilities). But recent comments have raised enough hubbub about the House Farm Bill’s provision on meat inspections (which I wrote about in a celebratory manner back when it was passed) that I thought I’d at least attempt to figure out what everyone’s beef was with it. (Ha! Ok, I’m done with the meat puns, I promise. Please keep reading.)

The first thing I’d like to do is lay out the current law so that we understand what we’re working with. There are currently three different types of slaughter facilities in the United States:

  • those that are federally inspected (the inspection is carried out by the USDA)
  • those that are state inspected (the inspection is carried out by state government agents)
  • a third type called "custom exempt" (also inspected by the state, but less frequently)

Since 1967, when the Wholesome Meat Inspection Act was passed, state-inspected facilities have been required to have regulations "equal to or better than" the federal inspection requirements. That means that today, state-inspected facilities must implement food safety regulations at least as stringent as those in USDA-inspected plants. Whether or not they enforce them is a separate issue, and one we’ll get to. State inspectors are trained to implement HACCP, the federal food safety law, and inspections are required to be carried out just as frequently in state plants as they are in the federal ones. State facilities are often confused with custom-exempt facilities, which do not have to be inspected as frequently.

The interesting thing about the current law is that although it considers state and federal inspection programs to be equal, meat from state-inspected plants cannot be sold across state lines. (Custom-exempt-processed meat cannot be sold at all and is intended only for the consumption of person who raised the animal and by "non-paying guests.")

There have been accusations swirling in the media to the effect that the House-passed provision, which allows state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines, would reduce meat inspections. (No, really: see this Chicago Tribune article, blatantly titled "Bill Would Reduce Meat Inspections.") That article leads with the assertion that the provision, which was inserted into the House version of the Farm Bill back in July by Rep. Peterson (D-MN), would "reduce required federal inspections for meat that is produced by small companies and then shipped across state lines." The article goes on to warn that "only state inspections would be required for some meat products."

OK, but as we just discussed, the inspection requirements for state and federal facilities are EXACTLY THE SAME. In fact, the law requires state regs to be "equal to or better," leaving open the possibility that some state laws will actually be more stringent than the federal. This fact of law allows us to dispense with two notions that the big meatpackers’ marketing machine has been inserting into the press: 1) that state regulations would jeopardize food safety by virtue of the fact that they are weaker, and 2) the "kill them with kindness" argument that forcing state inspectors to comply with federal regulations could constitute too great a burden and force state plants out of business.

The Tribune article implies both of these things, and they are both incorrect. The portion of the provision that allows the inter-state sale of state-inspected meat would change nothing in the current law except to eliminate the border barrier. State inspectors would continue to carry out the inspections in state plants — there is no requirement in the new provision that federal inspectors have to be used — and the facilities would still have to comply with federal regulations, as they have all along.

That said, there are other important concerns about this provision that have been raised by consumer advocacy groups like Food and Water Watch. Let’s examine them.

It’s no secret that our country’s meat inspection system leaves much to be desired. Understandably, consumer safety advocates want to ensure that this provision doesn’t weaken already weak meat inspection programs.  And concerns are real that state inspection services aren’t all up to par. As Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch noted in the Ethicurean comments section for yesterday’s Digest, "Federal courts and investigators at the USDA have documented problems in several state programs that amount to their inspection being weaker than USDA’s. But rather than require each state to be evaluated individually to see if it is up to snuff, this bill would make all of them eligible for interstate shipment at the same time."

I agree that we don’t want this provision to create more food safety problems by unleashing sub-par state meat across borders. That said, I don’t think her comment is entirely correct: the new provision requires the USDA to review each state inspection program and report to Congress on their effectiveness. Only approved programs would be eligible to ship meat across state lines.

But more importantly, I think the issue is not with state facilities and their food safety enforcement as much as it is with food safety enforcement period, across the board. USDA-inspected facilities are not up to snuff either, and critiques that focus only on problems with state plants play into the hands of big meat processors and their marketing machine — they reinforce the notion that the big USDA plants (some of which process as many as two animals every second) are the only ones that are safe. This perspective erodes consumer confidence in anything that’s not giant and highly mechanized. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that most meat contamination scares have originated at USDA plants. We’re in the middle of one right now, in fact: the Topps recall of ground beef. The Tribune article uses that recall to fuel readers’ shock that Congress could dare "reduce meat inspections," but then slides in the fact, far down the page, that Topps meat was processed at USDA facilities. Oops.

In my opinion — which I realize is not universally shared, and I’m looking forward to reading counter-arguments in the comments — if state facilities’ (and USDA facilities’) standards are not universally enforced, that’s cause for urgent advocacy for more money for inspections, enforcement, and/or better meat safety laws. I don’t see that as fair justification for prohibiting the shipment of state-inspected meat across state lines, however. Small- and mid-sized livestock producers, many of whom cannot get their animals into the USDA facilities, shouldn’t be forced to pay with their livelihoods for something that is ultimately the fault of policymakers who divert resources elsewhere, denying the system its teeth.

I’d also suggest that there are ways in which state-inspected facilities are far superior to big USDA plants. Brian Levy of the New Rules Project outlines some of them here. Many food safety risks at packing plants come from the high line speeds and the fact that workers can’t properly carry out their jobs if they’re forced to work too quickly (or while injured, or without proper rest periods, as I discussed in my Labor Day ode to meatpacking unions). State-inspected facilities are smaller than many USDA facilities and process fewer animals at slower speeds. That alone could have very positive impacts on animal welfare, worker welfare, and food safety.

But I don’t want to dismiss some of Patty Lovera’s other comments regarding problems with the House provision. She notes that "the bill would allow any meat plant with up to 50 employees [which covers about 80% of USDA plants]… to switch back and forth between state and federal inspection every 4 years." That would not legally affect food safety requirements, since they’re all subject to the same law, but it would, as she notes, "open the door for meat companies to “shop around” for more sympathetic regulators if they are having quality or safety problems." That’s a nightmare, and as Localivore asserted later on in the comments, it should be struck from the provision.

But let’s not throw the sirloin out with the offal. Small producers deserve our support, we all deserve a safe food system, and I think we can achieve both.



4 Responsesto “Getting to the heart of state meat inspection law”

  1. The discussion on interstate sales of state inspected meats in the mainsteam press has been one of the most innacurate, actually untruthful efforts that I have ever witnessed.

    On Oct. 2, 2007, reporter Stephen Hedges of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article titled — Bill would reduce meat inspections
    Despite E. coli scare, Congress mulls easing law–

    The article referred to a provision in the federal Farm Bill that would allow farmers and processors ship state inspected meat to any state in the country. Currently that benefit ( of selling locally inspected meat) is afforded to China, Bulgaria, Chile and any other country, but not to our states. The state programs are required by law to be at least equal to the federal inspection program.

    On Oct. 15, another Hedges article (Chicago Tribune) interviews this same Union, which is so concerned about the health and safety of consumers – while they admit that they are understaffed and virtually incapable of even fulfilling duties beyond basic paperwork.

    The Farm Bill provision proposed by Rep. Peterson, does not weaken food safety standards. It allows consumers to purchase products that have been State Inspected under the same rigorous standards as USDA inspections. It supports locally raised and processed meats, strengthens the small farms and rural communities that truly will be our salvation if the larger food system fails.

    As a state legislator, I wrote the Maine Meat Inspection Law and oversaw it’s implementation, it is equal to the federal inspection process as are all the other state laws, they must be in order to be approved. If there is a problem in one state, get it corrected.

    As a small farmer, raising and selling chevon ( goat meat) , I support a system of choice of processing for consumers and strong diverse agriculture which includes small and large farms and businesses. Federal inspections are an integral part of the equation, but need not be the only part.

  2. Vic says:

    As a former state meat inspector, I may have an insiders view concerning this subject. There are subtle yet important differences between state and federal meat inspection programs.

    State programs must be determined to be “at least equal to” the federal program. This is determined during a review by the US Dept. of Agriculture.

    Having seen several of these reviews, I can assure you that the result seems to be predetermined and politics plays a significant role in the resulting determination.

    The goals and budget of the federal meat inspection program are liklely to be a factor in how critical the review is. Assume that the fed has limited funding. They may not want to assume responsibility for a state program if that state program is not in compliance. The state will probably have advance notice of the review and will select the best facilities for inspection.

    One thing that always bothered me is that the agencies that are mandated to protect consumers are also the same agencies that promote that same product or industry. This is a problem at the federal level but it is much more of an issue at the state level. Where I served, the legislature was made up mostly of farmers and lawyers. The state Department of Agriculture rarely (if ever) had a farmer, meat processor or slaughterhouse operator cited for any violations. They were so concerned about impact on sales that any negative publicity had to be kept to a bare minimum.

    I know firsthand how corrupt and disfunctional a state program can become even with federal oversite. I have seen a state program come totally unravelled and the feds had to temporarily take control of the program. The problem is that the feds only did this after the corruption and disfuntion was exposed by the media. Prior to the expose, the feds had given the state program the thumbs up.

    I guarantee that the state program is still a problem as there are very few checks and balances. The fox still guards the henhouse. Why not have Food and Drug inspect meat and poultry? That’s because the agriculture industry does not want to lose control of the potential negativity. Recalls or notices of potentially adulterated meats usually occur when someone gets sick or the media gets a tip. Agriculture officials often know about problems long before there is a recall yet they are reluctant to act. I was told not to report serious problems on several occasions.

    I would be remiss if I did not mention the 4-D issue. 4-D stands for down, dead, dying and diseased. Healthy cows that walk into the slaughterhouse are rarely a problem. Most condemnations are of 4-D animals. 4-D animals are big business in small state slaughterhouses. Old dairy cows that can no longer stand up would normally not make it through a federal plant so the farmer will take it to the local slaughterhouse where the inspector is probably also a local resident, a former farmer or meat packer. That cow is much more likely to pass inspection at a state plant than in a federal slaughterhouse. I have seen it firsthand. I have worked in federal plants and been the inspector at processing plants that received carcasses from state slaughterhouses. I would not knowingly eat meat from a state plant. Even if they had more than one Veterinarian covering the entire state, the inspector would need to notify the Veterinarian and that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the Vet would ask a few questions over the phone and tell the inspector to go ahead and slaughter the animal, thqat they would look at the carcass the next day.
    The problem with that is that many diseases are only detected ante-mortem and the overall condition of the animal will be less apparent after it is eviserated and chilled overnight. These animals do not receive adequate inspection. That is why farmers take their 4-D animals to local slaughterhouses. They will receive as much as $1000 for an animal that more likely would have been condemned at the federal facility.

    These were some of the situations and problems that I observed when I was an inspector. I would bet good money that not much has changed. Do I want state product crossing state lines? Absolutely not!

  3. Coy Crawford says:

    Please tell me if a regulation has been passed or not passed that will allow red meat that is state inspected to be shipped across state lines.