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Compromise reached on interstate meat shipments

WASHINGTON North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson has achieved a major victory in his first month as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture: an agreement to be inserted in the 2007 farm bill bill to...

WASHINGTON North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson has achieved a major victory in his first month as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture: an agreement to be inserted in the 2007 farm bill bill to allow the interstate shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry that has won the support of farm, labor and consumer groups.

State departments of agriculture have been trying to get Congress to allow interstate shipment of meat inspected by state employees for decades, but consumer groups and labor unions always have blocked them.

In an interview, Johnson said the issue was one of "fundamental, economic fairness," not food safety, because federal law allows imported meat and state-inspected exotic species such as bison and meat from hunted animals to move from state to state while it does not allow state-inspected beef, pork, lamb and poultry to move beyond state lines.

Taking sides

The House-passed farm bill contains a bill allowing interstate shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry, but the consumer groups and labor unions objected bitterly to that agreement, saying it would lead to the sale of unsafe meat and poultry. Their objections turned into a major public relations battle, with Johnson and National Farmers Union President Tom Buis on one side and Consumer Federation of America food safety advocate Carol Tucker Foreman on the other. The unions and consumer groups charged that allowing state-inspected meat to be shipped interstate would endanger human health.

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But Johnson, Buis, Foreman and union leaders met in Washington and forged an agreement. The agreement on interstate shipment of state-inspected meat was the product of negotiations among 10 different groups including the National Farmers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, American Federation of Government Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

"The resulting compromise of these negotiations is good public policy that benefits both consumers and agricultural producers," the groups said in a letter, adding that they will "support this compromise language and oppose all efforts to amend its intent, throughout all consideration of the 2007 farm bill."

The deal would provide for companies in the program to use a federal label of inspection on meat even if it is inspected by state employees. The federal government would train state employees and pay for 60 percent or more of the cost of state inspection. The program would cover establishments up to 25 employees; companies larger than that would be encouraged to submit to federal inspection.

A long time comingThe agreement also was a big victory for Buis, who also negotiated the agreement in the bill that should lead to implementation of the 2002 farm bill provision requiring country-of-origin labeling of red meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and peanuts.

"It has taken many years to reach this compromise, and I am pleased smaller producers will finally have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. For too long, small producers have been shut out of markets but will now be able to ship their high-quality products across state lines," Buis said.

Unions had said they feared the plants would choose state inspection to avoid unionization. Johnson said NASDA had been forced to compromise on the size of plants that still could be state inspected and ship meat interstate. But he noted that of the 2,000 state-inspected plants, only about 100 have more than 25 employees.

Foreman, a longtime food safety advocate, said, "This law reinforces the principle that the first priority of meat and poultry inspection is protecting us and our families from adulterated food products. New marketing opportunities must remain a secondary consideration."

But Foreman also she was grateful that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other lawmakers "have made clear that the federal standards must be preserved." Boxer held a news conference this fall to state her opposition to the House bill.

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Foreman added, "These new provisions may also raise food safety standards in state inspection programs. They provide an incentive for states to increase food safety testing by having USDA reimburse states for 100 percent of the cost of testing that exceeds the testing frequency of the federal government."

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