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Safer By the Half-Dozen


Meat inspection – and by extension, food safety – were back in the headlines last week. And, once again, you’ve got to wonder what it is that government regulators, consumers and farmers are getting out of the nation’s inspection system.

Before announcing that it was going out of business Topps Meat recalled 21.7 million pounds of frozen ground beef after 27 people became ill as a result of eating some that was contaminated with our old friend E. coli. By contrast, agri-giant Cargill is recalling 845,000 pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination.

Click to view larger versionThese recalls throw into relief a provision in the current Farm Bill that would allow meat from state-inspected plants to be sold across state lines. Currently only meat from federally-inspected sites can be sold across state lines, but the House of Representatives inserted a provision in the bill allowing smaller processing plants – those with fewer than 50 employees – to also sell across state lines. As a result, a political turf fight has erupted. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), citing safety issues, has threatened to put a kibosh on the legislation unless that safe inspection provision is removed.

That may sound like a reasonable precaution, except that Topps Meat’s abattoir was USDA-inspected as was Cargill’s. Clearly a federal stamp of approval is less than it should be. Which is why the law need a good hard look.

There are currently three types of processing facilities: USDA-inspected abattoirs, state-inspected abattoirs, and so-called custom abattoirs. Meat processed in USDA-inspected plants can be sold anywhere, meat processed in state-inspected plants can only be sold within the state, and meat processed in custom-exempt plants cannot be sold, it can only be consumed by the owner of the animal and his/her non-paying guests (this enables me to buy a local lamb while it’s alive and have the person who sold it to me take it to a custom plant for processing; so long as I don’t sell any of that meat to anyone everything is legal).

Those opposed to the provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold outside the state have implied that smaller, state-inspected facilities operate at a lesser level of care than the USDA. According to the Associated Press, Boxer said “Allowing uneven and lax state standards to replace a uniform federal standard is not appropriate. It is irresponsible.” But a 1967 law called the Wholesome Meat Inspection Act (and the subsequent 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Inspection Act) provide that state inspections must be equal to or exceed federal requirements.

But why care?

For one thing a state-inspected site may have stricter standards than a federal site. A farmer named Steve Atkinson noted in an on-line discussion that initially he had planned to have his meat processed at a nearby federally-inspected plant but a visit to the plant changed his mind, writing it “smelled of rotting meat, had exposed animal offal in the livestock corral, and an abundance of flies.” Atkinson is using a much cleaner state-inspected plant instead.

And there’s another reason; in “Status Quo” I mentioned my friend Mellani and her problems finding a market for her lambs. When discussing this with her my immediate thought was, “Go mail-order,” or, more specifically, Web order. She has a hugely popular blog and would have no problem selling her lambs. When I suggested this she said she doesn’t have access to a USDA-inspected facility and so can’t sell to the large majority of her readers who live out of state. This restriction, like so many such regulations, favors the large meat producers and meat processors at the expense of the smaller, local producer and it isn’t even necessarily any safer!

I’m all in favor of strict safety regulations, but let’s look at reality. A federal inspection is no guarantee of safety and the law already requires that state inspections meet or exceed federal requirements. If there is concern that state inspectors are slacking off, then step up monitoring and enforcement of the states. Clearly they seem better able to handle the work than the feds.

Also, I’ve noted earlier there is a fundamental flaw in applying efficiencies of scale to packaging food – a flaw that feeds into the federal government’s inability to properly inspect almost all of our food. One bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel, or in this situation, one mad cow can potentially infect hundreds and hundreds of people.

We are better served in matters of contamination by having more plants processing fewer animals. It doesn’t improve the food security for any given facility, but it spreads the risk more widely and reduces its overall potential impact. Allowing meat that’s processed in state-inspected facilities to be sold across state lines is a good idea.

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