Federal regulation is a necessary part of any meat or poultry processor that wants to sell products outside of its home state. Both sides have the same goal in mind — produce the safest food for the American public. Disagreements on how to accomplish that do occur, typically to the detriment of the processor — particularly the small processor. Changes or extra paperwork that may be seen as bothersome to a larger company can be back-breaking to a small one.
There have been some successes. FSIS has reached out to small and very small plants with additional resources that are intended to help with HACCP programs, answer technical questions and explain FSIS policies in clear terms. Additionally, the American Association of Meat Processors has become an important voice in Washington. AAMP executives and officers have made several trips to meet with FSIS officials and relay their concerns. The small processor is being heard now, more than it has in the past.
Recently, FSIS announced an indefinite delay in the implementation of Revised Appendix A and B. The original guidelines for RTE products were written in 1999 and revised in 2017. The scheduled implementation date for mandatory compliance with the 2017 articles was to have been in March 2019. AAMP and other industry groups expressed their concerns to FSIS, questioning the adverse effects that the changes might have on small processors. Inspection personnel have been notified that establishments that use FSIS Appendix A and B as scientific support for lethality and stabilization procedures may continue to use the 1999 versions until further notice as FSIS processes the industry feedback.
There is more work to be done to ensure small processors are not given undue burdens when it comes to federal rules and regulations.
“Regulatory areas of concern and focus for us are humane handling enforcement and label approvals. Both are getting to crisis levels,” explains Chris Young, AAMP Executive Director. “Over-enforcement of humane handling regulations has driven a large number of small processors to get out of slaughtering, and this has led to farmers having to transport their animals long distances to find a processor who can do their animals for them, sometimes as much as three to five hours.
“The labeling issue is twofold. It is taking too long to get approvals for labels, and there is also inconsistency in the approvals between reviewers. This has led to a situation where new products are being held up for months in getting to market waiting for the proper approvals,” he adds.
One processor, who asked not to be named, says that responsive and consistent label approvals are the number one issue that affects his business and customers. Issues concerning consistency, challenges with understanding the current interpretation of laws and long response times have been a source of frustration.
“Label approvals or lack thereof are consistently costing us business,” he says. “It is extremely hard to explain to customers some of the idiosyncrasies of USDA labeling, and some of the requirements cause people to submit everything, clogging the system.”
The processor says that the delays in approval have been going on for years and have taken as long as eight weeks. The government shutdown earlier this year exacerbated the situation and caused some of his customers to miss deadlines.
“I will give the LSAS (Label Submission and Approval System) staff credit that they kept working through the government shutdown, and it was appreciated that they got as much done as they did,” he adds.
Meat and “meat”
While not yet a federal regulatory matter, more and more states have passed laws defining what can legally be called “meat.” Mississippi is just one example of a state that passed a law prohibiting animal cultures, plants and insects as being labeled “meat.” Such laws take aim at plant-based protein products that are gaining popularity in the marketplace, as well as cell-based proteins that are in development.
The government can implement laws that define a food under the public policy rationales that these “standards of identity” will prevent economic harm to consumers and businesses, explains Emily Strunk of the law firm Mayer Brown.
“Standards of identity can ensure that consumers are getting the product they expect. They often concern foods for which there is a certain customer expectation and the potential for substandard ingredients or composition, such as ‘smoked pork sausage,’ ‘ice cream,’ and ‘mayonnaise,’” she says. “When there is a void in federal regulation, we often see states enact regulations or laws that would fill that void under the rationale that they seek to protect the consumers and businesses in their state.”
Some of these laws have been derided as superfluous, but Strunk says that regulations restricting the name of a food to a product that meets certain characteristics have long been in the books, based on the principle that consumers should not be misled about what they buy. She adds that FDA and USDA have committed to ensuring that these products are accurately and transparently labeled.
“I think FDA and USDA will most likely speak to the issue, perhaps even after consumer research as they have with other labeling issues, but they may not go so far as to issue a standard of identity for meat,” Strunk says.