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Published February 06, 2012, 11:10 AM

State-inspected meat plants await OK

FARGO, N.D. — Will 2012 be the year that qualifying North Dakota meat processors are allowed to ship meat to other states in a federal program authorized four years ago?

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Will 2012 be the year that qualifying North Dakota meat processors are allowed to ship meat to other states in a federal program authorized four years ago?

Andrea Grondahl hopes so.

A new Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program, passed in the 2008 farm law, is still awaiting implementation, says Grondahl, director of the North Dakota State Meat and Poultry Inspection Program in the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

“We’re doing everything as fast as we can,” Grondahl says, noting the program is awaiting U.S. Department of Agriculture details within its Food Safety and Inspection Service. In the past month, USDA has named a new federal coordinator for the program, which may expedite the implementation, she adds.

North Dakota’s state meat program is one of 26 like it in the country, says Grondahl, a veterinarian. The staff includes 14 people, including eight inspectors, two supervisors and a compliance officer.

The program inspects 14 Official State Establishments that do slaughtering and processing, as well as 85 Custom Exempt establishments.

For the Official State Establishments, the state provides continuous inspection on inspected slaughter days, and is “physically present at least daily at plants on inspected processing days.” Products carry a “North Dakota Inspected and Passed” mark, and allow the plant to wholesale meat to retailers within the state.

Custom exempt facilities serve hunters and others who bring animals to a facility to be processed for a fee, and not for sale to the public. Custom exempt plants also include establishments such as grocery stores that buy “boxed meat” from federal or state plants, and further process products for retail sale.

Federal inspection is primarily for meat that is meant for interstate sale. Federal inspection charges a fee for bison and elk, but most inspections are free. One of the reasons the state program was initiated is that it is free for bison and elk.

The first decade

State meat inspection started in October 2000, and grew rapidly.

Cattle numbers under the North Dakota program grew rapidly and then leveled off at about 800 to 900 per year today, although Grondahl believes there is room for growth. Hog numbers have increased since 2009 and are now at a record-high of about 400 per year. Meanwhile, elk and bison numbers have declined to fewer than 100 each in recent years.

Meat processing in the program hit a peak of more than 600,000 pounds in 2007, 2008 and 2010, but dipped in 2011.

Grondahl thinks the demand for state inspection will increase if the new program allows interstate shipping.

FSIS came out with a final rule for the new program in June. “You’d be inspected by state personnel, but it will have a federal mark on the products,” she says. The new stamp will have a “SEND” indication, which stands for “Selected Establishment North Dakota.” Designating that the product is from North Dakota is important for consumers who want to buy locally produced products.

Former agriculture commissioner Roger Johnson was one of the proponents of the new federal program. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., pushed for it, and current Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring is a strong proponent.

North Dakota’s role

Grondahl says only three states — North Dakota, Wisconsin and Ohio — have actively pursued participation in the new federal program. Some other states qualify for a similar program called the Talmadge-Aiken Act or T-A program. This created federally inspected plants that were manned by state officials.

“That sounds the same, in my opinion, in that the T-A plants are within the federal system, whereas the new system would be state run but with federal oversight,” Grondahl says. “What hasn’t been established is whether federal oversight for the new program would be once a day, once a year, or something else.”

Grondahl acknowledges there is a lot of semantics in the issue.

State programs already must be “at least equal to” federal inspection, but FSIS has control over approving T-A for larger plants and a similar “cross-utilization” plant for smaller operations. North Dakota applied for the cross-utilization program for a Bowman, N.D., plant, but was turned down on grounds that the plant could be federally inspected. That plant has since shifted back to state inspection under the custom-exempt provision.

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