WASHINGTON — A recently opened small plant help desk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is designed to provide operators of small and very small meat, poultry and processed egg product establishments with help regarding agency requirements by providing direct access to knowledgeable staff specialists.

Assistance to state and local food regulatory agencies — F.S.I.S.' partners in keeping meat, poultry and egg products safe for consumers —will also be provided by the self-help desk.

F.S.I.S. is committed to providing assistance to businesses of all sizes that provide American consumers with access to a safe and healthy food supply, said Jerold R. Mande, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. "The small plant help desk will help the development of small, local producers by offering a one-stop shop for questions about how to make sure their meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled."

The new help desk will support U.S.D.A.'s "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative by helping small processors to reduce the time and expense of dealing with agency requirements. "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" is designed to continue the national conversation about developing local and regional food systems and finding ways to support small and mid-sized producers, the agency relays. It emphasizes the need for a fundamental and critical reconnection between producers and consumers, building on the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides additional flexibility for U.S.D.A. programs to promote local foods.

The F.S.I.S. small plant help desk is intended to serve as a "one-stop shop" for plant owners and operators with questions. More than 90% of the 6,000 plants inspected by F.S.I.S. are small or very small. F.S.I.S. staff will assess callers' requests and provide information and guidance materials that best meet their needs, according to the agency. In situations where the answer is not readily available, the staff will research the issue and follow-up with the caller.

As appropriate, the help desk will provide a portal to other services, such as AskFSIS, F.S.I.S.' existing Internet service offering official agency responses to inquiries on agency policy.

The help desk is open from 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday, excluding federal holidays. To speak to a staff specialist during this time, call 1 (877) 374-7435). Customers can also submit questions via e-mail at
[email protected].