WASHINGTON – Last week, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service published a final rule allowing smaller state-inspected meat and poultry plants, on a voluntary basis, to ship products across state lines.

For about 35 years, state-inspected plants have been trying to get permission to ship and sell their products out of state, rather than being limited to commerce within the states where they are located. In order to do this, they knew the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), the two laws governing meat and poultry inspection in the United States, would have to be changed. These laws have allowed states to operate their own meat poultry inspection programs with standards “at least equal to” federal standards, and these state inspection programs have existed mostly since the 1970s. About half the states operate these traditional state inspection programs. The other half do not, so their small and very small plants must be inspected by FSIS meat and poultry inspectors.

But in 2008, Congress passed a new Farm Bill allowing a cooperative agreement between states and USDA to be established. This new program would allow certain state-inspected establishments to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce. Based on this provision in the Farm Bill, USDA developed and proposed in September 2009 a rule to allow interstate shipment. Comments were accepted until the end of that year, and FSIS also held two public meetings to solicit comments on the proposal.

Based on comments the agency received, USDA went back to the drawing board, made some changes, and developed a final version of the September 2009 rule and published it last week. States would be chosen to participate in the program, and within those states, certain plants would be selected from applying plants to participate. These establishments would have to comply with all federal standards under the USDA meat and poultry inspection programs. They would be inspected by state inspectors who have been trained in the requirements of the FMIA and the PPIA. Plants participating could have no more than 25 employees. Changes from the 2009 proposal to the current final rule set up means for plants to return to traditional state inspection if they don’t want to continue in the new program.

But there are a number of questions state inspected plants and state inspection programs have about the new voluntary program outlined in this final rule that haven’t been answered. Which plants might be interested in the new program – certainly not all state-inspected plants – and how will they be chosen? Who will decide not to get into the program, and why? How will the program actually work? How did this program actually come to fruition, after this lengthy 35-year struggle? Will it work the way very small state-inspected plants and state inspection programs really want? Why did representatives of the industry’s large processors finally decide to go along with, if not support, interstate shipment?

These questions will be addressed in the next issue of Meat&Poultry. Meanwhile, you can read more about interstate shipment and its regulatory evolution in these previously published columns: September 2007 –Interstate Shipment Debate Continues; March 2008 –Issues Loom in Pending Farm Bill; July 2008 –Headway Made on Interstate Shipment; November 2009 –In Search of Clarification.

Based in Lancaster, Pa., Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent and a contributing editor for the magazine. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.