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Lawmakers want to end out-of-state meat restrictions

When Greg Heikens and Jolene Heikens wanted to grow their Iowa meat processing business, they found they had to switch from having state inspectors to federal inspectors.

Meat and poultry processors can’t legally ship their products out of 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 out of state. Twenty-seven states have their own state 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 allowing interstate shipment of state-inspected products could encourage plants to drop out of the federal system operated by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The consumer groups say it’s also not clear how a state inspection agency would enforce a recall of a product that has been sold in another state.

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 state inspection system this year after the USDA challenged the adequacy of its regulation.

The USDA also found problems in several other states – including Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and Wisconsin – during a review of state programs, according to the department’s inspector general.

USDA officials checked 11 state-inspected plants in Mississippi and reported a number of sanitation problems, including sootlike matter on hog carcasses, the inspector general said.

Eventually, the USDA certified all the state programs, except for New Mexico, as being “equal to” the federal inspection program.

Still, the inspector general’s report “painted a picture of a lot of state systems that weren’t up to speed,” said Chris Waldrop of Consumer Federation of America.

Small mom-and-pop processors such as Triple T Specialty Meats, which the Heikens started in Wellsburg, Iowa, in 1996, say state officials often are more responsive to their needs than the USDA.

Now that Triple T has federal inspection, its sausages, meat jerky and other products are now sold in at least 10 states and through the Hy-Vee supermarket chain, Heikens said.

The Senate agriculture committee doesn’t start work on its version of the farm bill until September. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, hasn’t decided whether to support interstate sales of state-inspected meat, said spokeswoman Kate Cyrul.

Organizations that represent federally inspected processors agreed not to fight the interstate shipment provisions only if state inspection programs were required to have the same rules the USDA has.

“If someone wants to ship across state lines, we just feel like everybody should be playing – by the same set of rules,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Meat Institute.

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail: pbrasher@dmreg.com.

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