Farm bill could alter process of interstate meat inspections

WASHINGTON - Under pressure from the meat industry and several states, Congress may be on the verge of eliminating a 40 year-old requirement that meat and poultry sold across state lines be federally inspected.

A little-noticed provision tacked on to the House farm bill passed in July would give states more authority to inspect meat and poultry and allow state-

inspected meat to enter interstate commerce.

A lobbying battle is expected to erupt this week pitting states, farm groups and smaller meat packers against consumer groups and labor unions who warn that the change jeopardizes the safety of meat. As it stands, 27 states operate under federally supervised state systems requiring meat inspections "at least equal to" those conducted under federal rules.

Packers and processors in those states have the option of submitting to federal or state inspections. Usually, smaller operations choose state regulations. But their meat can't be sold beyond the state's borders or over the Internet.

Missouri has been in the forefront of pushing for the change, arguing that about 35 processors in the state are disadvantaged by the rules, particularly in light of increased imports of foreign meat. "If we want to open more markets up to American agriculture products abroad, we ought to start opening them at home first," House Minority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a chief sponsor of the new state-inspection rules, said. The rules change was added late in the process to the House version of a new five-year farm bill - without benefit of public hearings.

Senate to tackle risks

The action now moves to the Se nate, where supporters will have to fend off assertions that the shift increases the risk of food-borne illness and threatens confidence in the food supply.

"There was a reason they passed the Wholesome Meat Act back in 1967," said Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant agriculture secretary and a fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. "So there would be a set of federal standards that everybody had to meet. With these changes, the government simply would not be able to vouch, day in and day out, for the safety of all these plants."

Skeptics of the proposed change point to a federal Agriculture Department Inspector General's Report in September 2006 raising questions about federal oversight of inspections in several states. The report found that the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service had uneven and sometimes baffling methods of assessing states.

For instance, the investigative report questioned why Mississippi had received an overall favorable rating even though all 11 packing establishments randomly sampled there were found to have deficiencies such as "soot-like material on swine carcasses in coolers ... and residues from previous days' operations."

Despite the warning signs, the federal government had not required a plan for corrective action from Mississippi, the inspector general noted.

The Agriculture Department has not taken a position on the proposed change, but raised questions in written comments distributed in Congress. For instance, the comments noted that states might be able to operate for a year without being held accountable for changes that might be needed to meet public health requirements. The federal agency also raised the potential of confusion about food recalls.

"Who will have the authority over adulterated or misbranded state-inspected product once it enters interstate commerce, the states or the federal government? Who will track and seize produce and carry out investigations and enforcement of state-inspected product?" the Agriculture Department asked. More hamburger patties recalled

TRENTON, N.J. - The Topps Meat Co. on Saturday expanded its recall of frozen hamburger patties that may be contaminated with the E. coli bacteria and sickened more than a dozen people in eight states.

Topps said it was recalling 21.7 million pounds of ground beef products distributed to retail grocery stores and food service institutions throughout the United States, up from the 332,000 pounds it recalled on Tuesday. The recall represents all Topps products with either a "sell by date" or a "best if used by date" between Sept. 25 this year and Sept. 25, 2008. The Elizabeth-based company said this information is found on packages' back panel.

All recalled products also have a USDA establishment number of EST 9748, which is located on the back panel of packages and - or in the USDA legend, the company said.

The USDA said three people are confirmed as getting E. coli from Topps products, with 22 other cases under investigation. Cases were found in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

E. coli causes intestinal illness that generally clears up within a week for adults but can be deadly for the very young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms can include severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.

HOW TO CHECK: A full list of the recalled products is available at