WASHINGTON — A measure designed to allow state-inspected meat with federal inspection equivalency to be sold across state lines is gaining momentum in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., recently re-introduced the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives, which could pave the way for Congressional approval.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.)
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.)
“There are 27 separate states that have equivalency or equal-to-federal inspection built into their plans, and yet they can’t sell across state lines,” Rounds says.

His bill would open up new markets to sell state-inspected products — already sold commercially — nationwide.

Rounds says South Dakota meat companies can sell product to consumers across the state, but because of federal law, they cannot sell across the border in Iowa.

“That’s just wrong,” he adds.

Plus, Rounds says allowing interstate sales would allow state-inspected companies to be more competitive with larger packers and would give them more ability to expand.

“If they expand, they offer more competition for producers and, just as importantly, a very high-quality meat product for consumers,” he says.

The nation’s meat processing industry has been crippled by workforce shortages tied to COVID-19 illnesses. The situation also has forced many consumers to source meat in outlets other than grocery stores. Many consumers are buying meat locally from smaller meat processors or purchasing live animals from livestock producers and turning to local locker plants and smaller meat processing facilities to process those animals. Rounds says this trend is also providing some leverage for passing this type of legislation.

Rounds says his bill would help ensure national food security and address some of the recent national meat shortages.

“I think right now people are starting to recognize that food security is critical. While our major meat processing facilities continue working to get up and running at full capacity, allowing state meat and poultry inspection programs to sell their meat across state lines will help address our current production crisis,” he says.

The act would also ensure that the U.S. processing sector is not putting all its eggs in one basket and would allow the industry to spread meat harvesting over multiple facilities across the country.

“Then the chances of all of them shutting down, similar to what’s happened within our meat packing and processing, is unlikely and you have more food security,” he says.

Rounds pointed to the massive disruption that resulted from the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls shutting indefinitely during the pandemic. That facility accounts for 5% of total pork processing capacity in the United States, and its closure led to pork producers having to euthanize animals.

Rounds and a number of his colleagues recently sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to include the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act in any future COVID-19 response efforts.

Livestock groups are generally supportive of the measure. Minnesota Pork Producers Association CEO Dave Preisler says that as long as it does not have any negative implications for the export market, his group is on board.

“I think the biggest thing that we want to make sure of is that we didn’t inadvertently do something that would maybe impact exports and or regionalization,” he says.

Preisler says there is more interest among farm groups and lawmakers in the legislation because of the disruptions in the food supply chain and commerce the past few months due to COVID-19.

The legislation is not a new concept and has been attempted several times in the past dating back to the 1990s. Sen. Tom Daschle, R-S.D., offered the Interstate Shipment of State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in April 2000. Farm bills have included language ordering the USDA to study the issue, and several USDA committees have recommended the ban on interstate shipment be removed.