Forty years ago, most states had meat inspection programs, in addition to USDA’s federal meat inspection program. All state inspection plants were very small operations. Over the next five years, about half of the state inspection programs closed, with all plants in those states becoming federally-inspected.

For the past 35 years, efforts were made to legalize interstate shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry products because under the law and USDA regulations, state-inspected plants have been allowed to sell their products only within their state boundaries. Three years ago, as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, a new law was passed setting up a new cooperative agreement between states and USDA, a voluntary program allowing state-inspected plants to ship their products across state lines if certain conditions were met. Then after three more years of negotiations, USDA approved a final rule putting the new interstate shipment plan into effect.

But will the new program get the state-inspected meat and poultry industry, plus state inspection programs themselves, where they really want to be? Many plants and inspectors have hoped for the past 35 years approval of interstate shipment would allow state programs and plants operating with standards “at least equal to” federal inspection to sell across state lines.

That is not going to happen under the new voluntary program. Instead, state-inspected plants wishing to ship meat or poultry products in interstate commerce must follow rules and procedures identical to federal inspection. State inspectors will be trained by USDA to enforce basically federal regulations, and they will do this under federal supervision. A USDA mark of inspection will be put on product labels and packages.

Bob Ehart, public policy director of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which represents the 28 remaining state inspection programs, is philosophical about the new law and rule. “Most of the states are saying, ‘This is what we got from the 2008 Farm Bill and the new USDA regulation. So, let’s make it work.’”

Minimal interest initially

Only a handful of the 28 states have shown interest, such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Vermont. Ehart believes states with many very-small plants must become involved if the program is to succeed. Plants close to state orders, or those producing specialty or niche products, would profit the most, he believes. He has no idea of how many plants might get involved. But he thinks there will be funding issues, even though 60 percent of costs will be paid by the federal government, because so many states are financially broke right now.

“Identical” rather than “equal to” inspection requirements in the new program come courtesy of the American Meat Institute and consumer groups. “We think the final rule adheres to what’s in the statute [the meat and poultry inspection laws and the Farm Bill],” says Mark Dopp, AMI’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs and general counsel. “Our fundamental concern is – if a state-inspected plant wants to ship in interstate commerce and competes with federal plants, everyone has to play by the same rules. So Congress decided in the Farm Bill standards should be identical. Everyone should meet the same standards.”

The American Association of Meat Processors, which represents large numbers of state-inspected plants, plus federal establishments, is not enthralled by the new program. “Consumer groups won out in some of the plan’s requirements,” says Jay Wenther, AAMP executive director. “If I was a very small state-inspected business owner, I’d be concerned about some of what’s in this regulation.”

He thinks the plan should be more user-friendly and less complex.

There is disagreement over technical provisions: If a plant pulls out of the program, must it become federal before going back to the regular state program? Wenther asks whether such plants would be able to become custom-exempt or retail-exempt. He also wonders why plants would have to be trained in HACCP, since they’ve been operating under that food-safety program as long as federal plants have.

The basic question about the new program really comes down to: Is the new program a state inspection program allowing state-inspected plants to ship their products across state lines? Or is it really a federal inspection program, with a USDA mark of inspection required on product labels, being carried out by state inspectors under the direct supervision of USDA? Time will tell.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.