Interstate shipment program for state-inspected meat plants held up by federal rule process
At the last meeting of the board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in La Valle two months ago, members were told that the last remaining hurdles for state-inspected meat plants were almost gone; that soon those meat plants would have the federal approval to ship their products into interstate channels for added income opportunities.
A date of Sept. 13 was set for the program to begin.
At the meeting of the ag board Nov. 14, board members were frustrated to hear that those regulatory problems still stand.
"We hope to soon sign the cooperative agreement. I hope I can soon tell you we're in and it's rolling," Steve Ingham, administrator of the department's Food Safety Division, told the board.
The board passed an emergency rule to allow the program to move forward two months ago at the LaValle meeting and this month passed a nearly identical final draft rule that will govern the program into the future.
The problems with getting the program off the ground have arisen at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"When we last spoke with you about the CIS (Cooperative Interstate Shipment) program in September we believed we were just days away from entry into the program," Ingham said.
"Unfortunately, there was a considerable delay as FSIS developed their expectations regarding product sampling and analysis for fiscal year 2013 and then required us to submit documentation indicating that we would meet these expectations."
As a result of those delays, he added, "we cannot report that we have been fully accepted into the program."
Still, the final draft rule the board approved will give his agency the "same as" inspection procedures of the federal program and the regulatory approval to move forward.
After the board approved both the nearly identical emergency rule and proposed draft rule in September, there were no comments made at hearings or by mail or email.
"Quite frankly, we believe that the industry is fine with the rules, and want to see the CIS program get started," Ingham said.
This final draft rule incorporates by reference the federal regulations which create the CIS program and also includes federal regulations which describe regulatory and meat plant practices that must happen under a "same as" program.
The final rule makes clear some inconsistencies, including the slaughter and processing of ratites (like ostriches and emus) and new regulations of what must happen in case of a recall.
The final draft also adds two exemptions from meat establishment licensing requirements. The first is for meat pizzas when they are shipped hot for sale by a non-profit organization and establishments that make meat items at a central commissary and ship them for meal sales at restaurants owned by the same company.
These exempted establishments would already be licensed as restaurants or food processing plants.
BY OTHER STATES
Secretary Ben Brancel told the board that some issues arose in the process at USDA after the North Dakota attorney general, who was "not working cooperatively with FSIS," raised some issues.
There have also been personnel changes at USDA and when that happened "everything came to a screeching halt," Brancel said.
Brancel talked with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack telling him that he needed some help to get this program going.
"When we passed the emergency rule, I firmly believed we would be done with this by now," Brancel said.
Once one problem was ironed out, the USDA said it wanted to make a change that was asked for by North Dakota and now the USDA wants to review that modification.
Brancel expressed his frustration with the process to the board in body language, standing up and waving his arms. "It is some extraneous issues with North Dakota that are impacting the process."
Board member Margaret Krome asked what the perceptions of other states have been with this process. "Are they finding this implementation a major encumbrance?"
Brancel said Ohio didn't have as many problems because its state-inspected program is very similar to the federal program. The Ohio program is run by a 25-year veteran of the FSIS, who undoubtedly tailored the state program to the federal program that was familiar.
"We have a very, very good state-run program; we had to find out how ours fit into the federal program," Brancel said.
"North Dakota's holdup was its own doing through the attorney general's office. It was not a program issue."
Ingham told the board that Indiana, a relative newcomer to the process, is finding "the same disturbing communication gap." Iowa was not interested at all in the program until Ohio got involved, he added.
AUDIT OF PROGRAM
Ironically, on the day the board met in September and approved the emergency rule, federal inspectors from the General Accounting Office (GAO) were in Madison auditing a program they thought was already in place, Ingham said, calling it a "Marx Brothers" kind of event.
They couldn't believe that a program which was mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill wasn't yet up and running, he added.
Board member John Koepke said he had gotten to know a small-scale meat plant in his southeast region of the state and their reaction to this process "is similar to Secretary Brancel's."
"We need to get to the goal line."
Brancel said he didn't think there were going to be any more hurdles after this one. A number of state-inspected meat plants are already signed up to be part of the new federal cooperative program and he believes others will see those initial participants and then want to join.
"Those involved know they're guinea pigs and they're okay with that," Brancel added.
Once the department signs the cooperative agreement with the USDA agency, Ingham said his division will then be able to formally nominate meat establishments for the program and these plants will be reviewed by the FSIS.
When the FSIS determines that an establishment qualifies, that meat plant will be given a new CIS plant number and inspection legend, get their labels approved and be in the interstate shipment business.
"One of the human calculations in this process has been how often do I bother Ben about this and he has to decide how often he wants to bother people at the USDA. You have to kind of ration those phone calls. If you do it too often, you become mosquitoes," Ingham said.