For years - even decades - Wisconsin meat processors covered by state inspection services have been trying to get the authority needed to allow them to sell their products across state lines. Now it appears the final hurdle is in sight.
During a meeting of the board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection at the Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge Sept. 12, the board approved a rule package that lays out how the state will work with federal regulators to make it possible for local locker plants to be certified to sell their products outside Wisconsin.
"Once this emergency rule goes into effect it gives us the regulatory authority," said Steve Ingham, Division of Food Safety Administrator.
The emergency rule, mirrored by a hearing draft for a permanent rule, allows the department to modify current regulations so it can meet participation requirements for a federal program that will allow certain state-inspected meat plants to sell their products in interstate commerce.
Ingham said there are about five meat plant operators who have agreed to participate in the program from the start. Not all are near state borders as might have been expected - but are scattered all over the state, he told Wisconsin State Farmer.
Other state processors who may be interested in expanding their businesses and shipping out of state plan to see how the program works before jumping in.
With 279 state-inspected meat and poultry processing plants, Wisconsin has the largest such program in the United States. The state also has huge population centers - think Chicago and Minneapolis just across the borders - so state meat plants have a tantalizing marketplace that is just out of reach because of regulations.
Now, by implementing the emergency rule while proceeding with the permanent rulemaking process, Wisconsin will be able to participate immediately in the federal program, Ingham said.
"There has been some very interesting politics" that has gone into the whole process, he said. "But it's a pretty big hurdle today to get this done."
Wisconsin's state inspection program began in 1968 and at that time, it was thought that those inspections would be considered the same as federal inspections, but that didn't pan out.
When federal food regulations in 1996 incorporated Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), a management system for food safety, the smaller state-inspected plants got even further away from getting their products into interstate trade.
Meanwhile, state regulators and Congressional representatives continued to make the case for state-inspected meat plants and their inability to ship products across state lines. It was hurting the growth of these local businesses and preventing them from creating additional jobs.
Finally, the 2008 Farm Bill included a section to eliminate the inspection snafu and allow local meat plants to ship into interstate commerce, but it has taken four years since then to bring the program to this point.
There are 27 other states that also have state-inspected meat plants, according to Ingham.
In Wisconsin, the large number of smaller state-inspected meat plants fill an important niche in the state's economy, providing services to local-food producers and generating local jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides half of the funding for state meat and poultry inspection programs.
Ingham said a cooperative agreement has been signed between DATCP and USDA; personnel from the state inspection program have attended USDA training sessions along with federal meat inspectors.
at least EQUAL TO
Under the agreement states must provide inspection services "at least equal to" federal meat inspection. Programs will be audited to make sure they do so. Wisconsin's programs, Ingham said, currently meet those "at least equal to" standards and have done so since the program's inception.
Cindy Klug, director of the DATCP's Meat Safety and Inspection Bureau, explained that there will be a few "different wrinkles" in the program, but they will affect inspectors and recordkeeping more than they will affect the meat plant operators.
She explained that meat plants will operate as they have for a set number of days per week, but a certain day of the week will be set aside to produce products for interstate commerce. "The procedures have been spelled out," she said.
The new procedures, called the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program, requires states to provide inspection at the selected meat plants that is the "same as" or identical to federal inspection. USDA will fund 60 percent of the state's cost for inspecting meat and poultry plants selected to participate in the CIS program.
"It's a different hat and different playbook, if you want to use a metaphor for it," said Ingham.
The state had applied to participate in the CIS program in July of 2011 but USDA indicated that Wisconsin couldn't be accepted into the program until several features of the state program were deemed to be "the same as" their counterparts in the federal meat inspection system, he explained to board members.
Since then, those working in the state program have achieved "same as" status in the areas of computers and forms, staffing, training and laboratory sample analysis.
"The only remaining area that must be deemed 'same as' is our regulatory authority," he said.
The board's action to approve both the emergency rule and the identical draft permanent rule took care of that.
In addition to making the changes the USDA required for the CIS program the rule revision also modernizes wording to indicate that inspection is required for meat and poultry "processing" and not just "slaughter."
Ingham told board members that it was thought that participation in the CIS program would also make meat processors' products eligible for international sale, but the USDA has now said that a separate agreement would be necessary for that purpose.
"At this time our focus is on interstate shipment."