The term that comes to mind is “regulatory overreach” – a phrase that crops up from time to time, typically when regulators decide to make and enforce their own regulations. It is usually limited to a small area, or a single inspector. Unfortunately, I have been hearing it more and more, and it appears that it has become a systemic issue in the meat and poultry industry.
In Montana, the issue came about during a program review (audit) by the FSIS of the state inspection program, which is implemented by the Meat & Poultry Inspection Bureau. During the audit, the Bureau decided that it had the ability to issue withholding actions without providing due process — do involuntary recalls, literally pick up a processor’s product and throw it in the trash — and without any documentation on the part of the regulator. That’s right, no NR’s, no letters, not even emails in most cases.
As an example, the State of Montana did an involuntary recall of jerky product. Yes, we all know that they don’t have the authority to do that, yet they did. The damage done to the processor is immeasurable, and the regulators just don’t care; according to them, they did it to save the State program, i.e. under the direction of FSIS. Not a single food safety professional that has reviewed the process feels there was a food safety hazard. The case is going through legal channels now, and as with all things in the court system the outcome may not be known for a year or more.
The Montana state program insists that it is only doing what FSIS audit teams demanded. According to the audit, an FSIS auditor decided that product was adulterated and directed that the state program recall the product in question. This was done without sending any information to the Health Hazard Evaluation Board, notifying the producer of the allegations, or giving the producer the opportunity to produce any records to refute this claim, let alone appeal any decisions. The processor’s name has been dragged through the mud, without any documentation to support these claims or being afforded any sort of due process.
In August 2017, the bureau was put under the oversight of the State Veterinarian. In addition, processors, their vendors that provide services and products, the Montana Association of Meat Processors and the American Association of Meat Processors met with the Board of Livestock.
In a packed room, the Board created a committee directed and empowered to develop solutions to the many issues facing the Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau. The unique thing about this committee is the makeup. It includes three processors, three Livestock Board members representing the public, and a representative of the inspectors union. For the first time, processors have a true voice concerning how a regulatory body is going to function, the procedures and processes it will use, and potentially its very structure. Processors are not just in the public section of the board room, they are at the table.
The challenges they face are not easy ones. Inspector training, communications, enforcement procedures, management, resource allocation must be managed, to assure not just equivalency with the federal program, but also to assure due process and the ability to innovate. It is going to be a lot of work, but work that must be done. I was sitting next to Chris Young of the American Association of Meat Processors when he publicly stated that AAMP will provide support to the committee; the same was said by Jeremy Plummer of the Montana Association of Meat Processors.
Montana is the start of what I hope is a new way of doing business. One that is fair, that allows all players a seat at the table, one that assures the American public has a wide and varied choice of safe, wholesome, and innovative products on the shelf!