New markets for small meatpackersby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
A few lines in the U.S. Farm Bill could mean big changes for small meatpacking plants. State-inspected meat processors say the legislation opens the door for significant growth in their business. Consumer groups say the change might compromise food safety.
Wyndmere, N.D. — Most of the meat sold in grocery stores is approved by federal inspectors working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But 28 states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin run their own meat inspection programs for small meat processors.
Under current law, those state-inspected plants can only sell meat in the state where they are located.
That severely limits sales, according to Ted Mauch, co-owner of Bridgemart Meats in Wyndmere, N.D. Wyndmere is close to Minnesota and South Dakota, but Bridgemart can't sell products in either state. Mauch says his company has missed opportunities to market its sausage and snack sticks.
"When we first started, we had a deal with Pugsley's sandwiches where we were making snack sticks for them. Pugsley's got bought out by Deli Express. Deli Express is currently in 34 states. We were in one (state). Now if interstate shipment opened up, we'd have a chance to be in 34," says Mauch.
Under current federal law, Bridgemart Meats can only sell its products in North Dakota, and that's a marketing problem. Most grocery or convenience store chains are in several states, and they want products that can be delivered to all their stores.
Bridgemart meats co-owner John Kuchera says a company could be fined if they sold his sausages in Minnesota, and most grocery chains won't take that risk.
"Because ultimately, it's their fault if it gets someplace else," he explains. "It's not ours, it's not the drivers, it's theirs. They would be facing the music on that and that's something they're not willing to do."
Bridgemart meats is typical of many state-inspected meat plants. They don't slaughter animals. they focus on making specialty products like smoked sausage.
An inspector from the North Dakota Agriculture Department visits their plant two days a week, while they're processing the meat. The rest of the week they smoke and package the sausage.
The Consumer Federation argues state-inspected meat may not be as safe as the meat inspected by the federal government. And they say, states don't have the authority to recall products if there's a problem.
The National Pork Producers Council says U.S. meat exports could be jeopardized by the new rules. They say if state-inspected meat can be sold anywhere, it might be exported to other countries, and those countries might reject U.S. meat if they don't trust state inspection programs.
But state officials say those claims are without merit. Minnesota Department of Agriculture Program Manager Nicole Neeser oversees meat inspection at about 60 small operations in Minnesota. She says the state inspection program mirrors what the federal government does.
"The states have to meet the same standards the USDA plants have to meet. We are reviewed every three years by USDA to make sure we are meeting those standards," says Neeser. "In the case of Minnesota, our regulations are exactly the same as USDA regulations."
Neeser says easing the restrictions on state- inspected plants would benefit small meatpackers and farmers. Under the new rules, farmers could have their animals slaughtered at a state-inspected plant, and sell the meat anywhere.
Bridgemart Meats co-owner Ted Mauch says he just wants a chance to compete against meat products that have the federal stamp of approval.
"We're meeting the same guidelines but we're still restricted to the state, so it's not a fair playing field," says Mauch. "Let's get back on a fair playing field, then we'll see who makes it and who doesn't."
The legislation to allow state-inspected meat to be sold nationwide has been approved by the U.S. House. The provision is also expected to be included in the Senate version of the farm bill currently being debated.
- Morning Edition, 08/22/2007, 6:50 a.m.