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Introduction to Meat Regulation

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Why We Decided to Undertake This Project

The purpose of this resource guide is to help New York farmers better understand the current regulations governing the slaughtering, processing, and marketing of meat animals. Two ways for farmers to realize higher returns for their farm products are to take over some of the traditional roles of middlemen or to shift completely to direct marketing. However, meat regulations are complex. Accurately interpreting the statutes governing the processing and sale of meat animals – including poultry- and their products is more formidable for livestock farmers than for their counterparts in fruit and vegetable production. Even experienced farmers can be confused by the regulations. Without a clear understanding of what is and is not permitted under current laws, many meat producers are hesitant to participate more directly in the marketing of their product. Instead, farmers may be limited to contract growing livestock for large corporate packers, or selling slaughter animals through a shrinking number of local auctions and dealers. Both alternatives offer limited recourse to competitive pricing. This resource guide explains the complex meat laws in layman’s terms and clarifies the legal logistics of direct marketing livestock and poultry. Ultimately, this should lead to a more direct market chain from farmer to consumer in New York and hence, more local dollars circulating in local communities.

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Why Inspections are Important and the History of Federal Inspection

Why are regulations for the processing and marketing of meat more complex than those for vegetables and fruit? Many of the acute human health problems posed by fresh fruit and vegetables are caused by unsanitary water. Fortunately, in the United States, ample, potable water is available and therefore fruits and vegetables are not considered a critical threat. However, unlike fruits and vegetables, health pathogens can multiply rapidly in animal products that are improperly handled.

The United States acknowledged early on that poorly managed livestock and their products could pose a threat for human health. In 1865, USDA Secretary Isaac Newton urged Congress to enact legislation providing for the quarantine of imported animals. On May 29, 1884, President Chester Arthur signed the act establishing the Bureau of Animal Industry, which was the forerunner of Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Bureau of Animal Industry’s early function was to focus on preventing diseased animals from being used as food.

In 1905, author Upton Sinclair published a novel titled “The Jungle”, which took aim at the brutalization and exploitation of workers in a Chicago meatpacking house. This truly was the turning point for food inspection. While Sinclair attempted to raise awareness of the working conditions, he also raised public outrage with the unsanitary processing practices that he graphically described in his book. As a result of the public outcry, the United States government enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The Act placed federal inspectors within slaughterhouses for the first time.

In the early 1900’s local butchers slaughtered and cut meat that consumers used locally. Following World War II, the processing industry changed significantly. The rapid growth of the interstate highway system and the development of refrigerated trucks allowed packing houses to expand and become more mechanized. The poultry industry experienced explosive growth. The Bureau of Animal Industry evolved into the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, this agency oversees the processing, labeling, and packaging of commercial meat, poultry, and egg products.

Congress passed the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957 to keep pace with the rapidly expanding market for dressed, ready-to-cook poultry and processed poultry products. The 1967 Wholesome Meat Act and the 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Act clearly defined the handling of meat products. They expanded the mandate of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act by requiring that state inspection programs be “at least equal to” federal requirements. (Current government statutes covering meat products are listed in Title 9 of the “Code of Federal Regulations” for Animals and Animal Products. This code is available on the web and as hard copies from the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)).

Initially, federal inspectors used sight, touch, and smell methods of inspection for meat products. As technology advanced, inspectors adopted laboratory testing to ensure that all meat and poultry handlers maintained products under proper conditions. Inspectors, in addition to the routine inspection, perform in-plant residue testing and collect samples to ensure that products are free of disease pathogens.

Today, FSIS combines visual inspection of carcasses and periodic laboratory testing with an aggressive preventative program referred to as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). Under HACCP, the plant operator must identify all critical points along the processing and handling route where microbial and pathogenic problems could develop. The operator must then develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for these areas of concern and for validating that no problems are encountered. The job of the inspector under HACCP today is not only to inspect animals and carcasses but also to ensure the plant is following the HACCP plan written specifically for it. Inspectors verify that a plant identifies potential hazards, completes testing, and undertakes corrective measures according to each plant’s own personalized plan.

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Compliance Versus Circumventing

The purposes of government regulations for the inspection of meat and poultry products are to: 1) prevent the sale of adulterated, contaminated, or otherwise unsafe livestock products; 2) prevent misbranding; 3) insure the safety of consumers by establishing minimum standards for the production, slaughter, processing, and marketing of these products; and 4) create a system of licensing, inspection and labeling to trace a product back to its origin if a public health problem should arise.

An inadvertent side effect of increased regulation and validation is that smaller processors and farmers may be disproportionately disadvantaged due to economies of scale. For example, validation equipment is often expensive to purchase and maintain. The smaller volume of output of smaller plants results in these plants incurring a greater overhead expense on a per pound basis.

This negatively affects producers and conflicts with the stated aim of our New York agricultural agencies to increase the sales of value-added farm products. However, a close study of the meat statutes reveals some exemptions and alternatives that can benefit the small farmer and processor who are marketing slaughter animals or meat products.

It is far better to have an excellent understanding of the meat regulations and to diligently study any changes in their interpretation rather than to focus on circumventing them and risk trafficking in illegal or unsanitary products.

The New York livestock industry needs to build strong communication channels with meat inspectors. There is a formal review process for proposed changes in the wording of statutes. The livestock industry needs to be able to rapidly apprise farmers and small processors when such regulatory reviews are ongoing and find ways to motivate them to participate in the process. Unfortunately, there are no formal regulatory review procedures when the interpretation of a regulation is being changed. This is unfortunate, because even a small change in interpretation can have damaging implications for farmers and processors. Making sure livestock farmers are knowledgeable about the current regulations governing meat products and slaughter is a positive first step at improving their ability to communicate effectively with officials.

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