Dan Murphy: State Inspection SNAFU

May 24, 2018 08:30 AM
 
It might be time to junk the law preventing state-inspected meat and poultry from being sold across state lines — at least that’s what a bipartisan (gasp!) group of senators is trying to do.

In my other life, when I’m not battling online with anti-industry activists, I coach a middle school speech team. Among many others associated with that labor of love, one key challenge is convincing 11- and 12-year-olds that a humorous script they’re considering for a tournament is actually funny.

To adults, that is, not young people.

That’s because adults serve as judges at the speech tournaments, so the funny has to appeal to “old people,” as middle schoolers affectionately call anyone over the legal drinking age. To make the point that adults have much different perspecitves on life experiences, I’ll share a classic “Back in my day, we didn’t have [cable channels, remote controls, pre-mixed yogurt] like you kids today” speech.

Those always generate some serious eye rolling.

In the same sense, the meat industry could be excused for launching into a “back in my day” rant on the topic of state inspection and interstate sales of meat and poultry.

That’s because it wasn’t that long ago that hundreds of smaller, family-owned locker plants and packinghouses dotted the landscape of rural America. If you were a farmer or rancher raising a small herd of cattle or hogs, you could load them up in a trailer and head out to either a local slaughter plant or auction yard to market your animals.

That began to change in the late 1980s and early ’90s, starting with the mandatory implementation of HACCP programs that forced hundreds of marginally profitable locker operations and packing plants to decide it wasn’t worth the cost of compliance, upon which they sold out or simply closed up shop.

That regulatory imposition was coupled with years of punitive lawsuits following foodborne illness outbreaks, and litigation that squeezed multi-millions in settlements out of formerly profitable companies. Those businesses were then forced to find a buyer to scoop up what was left of the business, or simply liquidate whatever assets had any value and call it a day.

This isn’t to say that food-safety practices years ago were the picture of perfection, or that contamination incidents or recalls were rare, uncommon events. However, all that game-ending litigation not only sunk many an independent operator, the mere threat of such a suit forced many others to decide that unless they got themselves acquired by a bigger entity with deeper pockets, there was no chance they’d survive a significant food-borne outbreak.

Something New is Something Old
It’s impossible to change any of that history, but one effort underway in Washington, D.C., aims to help the surviving small packer-processors remain viable.

Sens. Mike Rounds (R-N.D.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Angus King (I-Maine) have introduced a bill to allow meat and poultry processed in many state-inspected facilities to be sold in interstate commerce.

Titled, “New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act,” the bill purports to help not only processors but also farmer-producers who want to access markets in neighboring states, as well as consumers eager to support locally grown food products.

According to a news release from Sen. Rounds’ office, none of the companies operating in the 27 states with state inspection programs can sell meat across state lines unless those products are approved by a USDA inspector — even though by law, state inspection programs must be “equal to or better than” federal inspection.

That’s the irony of what has been a 20-year battle involving such congressional advocates as then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Rep. (now Senator) Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) to allow state-inspected firms to sell to supermarkets, for example, that stage their wholesale distribution at a cold-storage facility located in the neighboring state adjacent to a state-inspected processing plant.

If state programs must be equivalent to USDA’s protocol, why can’t those products enter regular commercial channels? Why does the law recognize a difference in safety and/or wholesomeness for state-inspected meat and poultry, versus federally inspected products?

The answer, of course, is that there isn’t any significant difference, yet the ban on interstate sales persists, despite bipartisan support to level the playing field.

As Baylen Linnekin, an adjunct law professor at George Mason University Law School, argued in a provocative article on Reason.com titled, “It’s Time to Put Our Federal Meat Inspection Law Out to Pasture,” the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which mandated federal inspection for interstate sales of meat and poultry, may be unconstitutional.

“By passing the Wholesome Meat Act, Congress delegated to the USDA a power Congress itself does not possess: to regulate wholly intrastate commerce,” Linnekin wrote.

Not sure I’d go that far, but his point is a valid one: Legislative or regulatory mandates that cripple small business and reduce consumer choice have no business remaining in place — not to mention that there is virtually no public health or food-safety issues unique to state-inspected meat and poultry products.

I’d ask the same question about those foods as I do about GMOs: If they’re so dangerous, how come there aren’t any data on all the people (allegedly) getting sick and dying?

But when that question is posed to policymakers, it seems to generate pretty much the same reaction I get with my 12-year-old students when I try to explain how different life used to be for us “old people.”

A look of boredom that requires the kind of studious practice I can only wish they’d devote to learning their speeches.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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