Because of a little-noticed legislative change buried deep within the 2007 farm bill approved in July by the House, only state inspections would be required for some meat products.
The measure was planted in the farm bill by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), according to congressional staffers familiar with the bill. It would be a boon to small meat processing companies whose products must remain in the state of origin because they lack a federal inspection stamp.
The debate over the state inspections is unfolding during the recall of 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Topps Meat Co. of Elizabeth, N.J., because of E. coli contamination.
Other large beef recalls include a 2002 action by Con Agra, which recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef because of E. coli, and a 1997 recall of 25 million pounds of beef made by Hudson Foods.
Topps is a large-enough meat processor to require the presence of one of the USDA's 6,500 meat inspectors in its plant. But many companies aren't that big. The requirement for a USDA inspection and stamp on meat that will be sold interstate hampers sales for smaller meat processors, according to beef industry advocates.
Shorter Trib: Big meat packing companies with federal inspectors on site abuse the public trust by using such skeezy practices that we have to recall 20 million lbs. of meat every year. Therefore, smaller companies should continue to be shut out of the market.
The agricultural market (in meat, especially) is not a capitalistic system; it's been rigged against smaller companies, farmers, and ranchers by decades of unfair regulation aimed solely at preserving their oligopolies. Smaller meat packers can't get their meat federally inspected because the inspectors won't give you the time of day unless you have a million dollar operation, yet they're blocked by federal regulation from moving their meat to more lucrative markets across state lines and thus making the kind of money it takes to get the inspectors. And that's only the beginning.
Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma that one organic farmer he talked to in Pennsylvania was told that, if they wanted a single inspector for his operation, he would have to change to a purely indoor facility, even though the meat from his outdoor one always tested lower rates of E. coli than of the federally inspected facilities (at first that sounds weird, but when you think about it, an enclosed slaughterhouse is actually a cesspool, even if you could totally clean it regularly). He would also have to build the inspector his own bathroom, among other absurdities.
Yet despite this incredible burden on small companies, and the presence on site of federal meat inspectors at the big companies, how much safer is your meat compared to even 10 years ago (or at last year's rate, 2,500,000,000 lbs. of recalled meat ago)?
I can say this: when my parents were my age, they could eat rare steak without losing a wink of sleep over it. E. coli was virtually unheard of.
I think it's safe to say that the small-time companies aren't the problem.
Our food system is plagued by a whole myriad of deformities, most of them stemming from the monopolistic, exploitative, and negligent behavior of Big Foods, of companies like Topps and Conagra. It's long past time to start breaking down the old system and moving toward a more localized, sustainable way of producing food.