Carol Tucker-Foreman is distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. Michael J. Wilson is international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Buyers beware. The farm bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is dangerous to your health. It includes a provision that may, literally, make you sick to your stomach.
The provision certainly increases your risk of contracting food-borne illness from contaminated meat or poultry because it ends the requirement that meat or poultry cannot be sold across state lines unless a federal inspector, sworn to protect public health, has determined the product is safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled. Forty years of uniform federal safety standards are thrown out in favor of allowing meat and poultry inspected by state governments to be sold anywhere in the U.S. or abroad. The bill does not, however, permit states to set higher health standards.
Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1967, setting national safety standards for meat because the quality of state programs varied widely. The act included a compromise, permitting states to continue their meat inspection programs if the state set standards "equal to" the new federal requirements. However, Congress clearly recognized that multiple state programs jeopardized the goal of high uniform safety standards. They also prohibited state-inspected meat from crossing state lines. The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the restriction.
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture relies on science to protect public health. Inspectors test products for pathogens and USDA's sophisticated laboratories assess the results. USDA has warned Congress that many states don't have the laboratory facilities and recordkeeping capacity to support science-based food safety programs.
Why would Congress undermine federal food safety laws? The bill's supporters argue that the "equal to" requirement prevents increased health risk. They ignore multiple reports from USDA's Office of Inspector General that criticize state inspection programs and USDA's oversight of them. A 2006 OIG audit, rife with stomach-churning details of filthy state-inspected plants, reports that when USDA found state programs didn't meet federal standards, they did not shut them down.
Supporters claim federal meat inspectors are insensitive to the problems of small companies and state inspectors are more sympathetic. They say very small plants can't deal with complex federal requirements. These supporters must be unaware that almost half of the 5,603 federally inspected meat and poultry plants are very small, employing 10 or fewer workers. Almost three thousand little companies, all across the U.S., comply with federal regulations and make a profit. What justifies giving competing plants special care and attention and less rigorous oversight?
Congressional supporters hope this proposal will encourage new small packing companies and get better prices for cattlemen and poultry farmers. But they haven't even tried to address the problems the bill raises. They ignore the chaos that would arise if we needed to recall adulterated state inspected meat or poultry. Recent nationwide recalls of adulterated ground beef and spinach have taught us that speed, coordination and accurate records are vital to reducing the toll of illness and death. States can't act quickly or effectively because they don't have authority or staff to track and retrieve products from another jurisdiction. Congress owes us answers before they pass this bill.
The stark truth is that this farm bill provision will effectively end the federal meat and poultry inspection system. Eighty percent of all federally inspected plants will be eligible to escape uniform mandatory federal inspection in favor of oversight by their home state. Thousands of meat packers will be free to shop around for the friendliest inspection and free to switch back and forth between federal and state inspection every few years.
The provision is so inimical to the public interest that Congress is trying to sneak it through. The House of Representative held no hearings on it and the Senate doesn't plan to. If Senators won't put food safety and public health first, the farm bill should be marked the same way USDA designates bad meat—"Inspected and Rejected."