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Interstate shipment of inspected meat compromise reached

When the Senate Agriculture Committee meets Wednesday to vote out a farm bill, the version introduced by committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) will include a provision that allows interstate shipment of meats from small state-inspected plants.

Opposition from consumer groups and labor unions, and Harkin who sided with them, had threatened to kill the idea in the Senate, even though the House of Representatives included it in its own version of a farm bill passed last summer.

A deal announced Tuesday was brokered by National Farmers Union president Tom Buis, who's getting a reputation around Washington as a skilled farm bill fixer. It was Buis who negotiated with packer interests last summer to come up with a form of mandatory country-of-origin labeling that producers, packers and consumers could live with. It was included in the House bill and is likely to pass in the Senate as well.

The compromise agreement means that state-inspected plants with up to 25 employees would be allowed to ship across state lines. Those with up to 35 employees would have three years to transition to federal inspection. Plants larger than that would have to either sell within a state or shift to federal inspection.

"I think we have finally broken a 30-year stalemate," Buis told reporters late Tuesday.

Roger Johnson, North Dakota's Agriculture Commissioner and head of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, agreed that this issue has occupied NASDA in the 11 years he's worked with the group.

"NASDA has had interstate shipment of state-inspected meat on its plate for many years," Johnson said. The group felt that it's unfair that 20% of the meat sold in the U.S. that's imported gets no more rigorous inspection than state plants, yet is allowed to sell anywhere in the U.S.

Consumer groups were worried that state-inspected meat would be less safe. And unions were reportedly worried about loss of jobs if large federal plants shift into state inspection.

Johnson said he's not aware of any recalls of state-inspected meat.

The compromise was announced by NFU, NASDA, Consumer Federation of America, American Federation of Government Employees, Food & Water Watch, Center for Science in the Public Interest, National Consumers League, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, Government Accountability Project, and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Buis also happens to be on the board of the Consumer Federation of America, which he acknowledged may have helped the negotiation process.

"We've long felt at Farmers Union that consumers are our customers," he told Agriculture Online. "We have no problem working with those groups and, in fact, I think it's beneficial in the long run."

The compromise agreement will affect roughly 3,000 state-inspected plants nationwide, Buis said. About 100 of those have more than 25 employees, Johnson said

Both Buis and Johnson said that farmers selling specialty meats and organic meat will likely benefit from the change.

"Many of these federally inspected plants won't even open up a spot for them," Johnson said.

It also will help small plants that sell to grocery stores in cities that border another state. Johnson said one North Dakota plant sells to a grocery chain in the Wahpeton, North Dakota. The same business owner has a grocery store in nearby Breckenridge, Minnesota, where the meat couldn't be sold. Often such stores won't buy locally, for fear that state-inspected meat might wind up across the state line by mistake.

If the compromise becomes law, USDA would have up to 18 months to write rules for the new program, which would be a part of Federal Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts.

When asked if that means that consumers might be able to order North Dakota sausage online for Christmas of 2010, Johnson said, "I would certainly hope so."

When the Senate Agriculture Committee meets Wednesday to vote out a farm bill, the version introduced by committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) will include a provision that allows interstate shipment of meats from small state-inspected plants.

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