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:
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.