Oregon lawmakers consider state meat inspection to strengthen local meat

EO MEDIA GROUP - Denise Pohrman, plant manager at Mohawk Valley Meats in Eugene, Ore., moves carcasses. Oregon is considering a state meat inspection program but some experts say it'd make more sense to help processors obtain USDA inspection, which allows companies like Mohawk to process meat that can be sold across state lines.

Insufficient livestock slaughter options in Oregon have spurred a proposal to reinstate a state meat inspection program, but some experts say another approach would be more effective.

During a special legislative session that began June 24, lawmakers will consider House Bill 4206, under which the Oregon Department of Agriculture could again regulate livestock slaughter and processing.

The idea is to expand the opportunities for small-scale processors who currently process meat that can't be sold commercially, thereby reducing the need for livestock producers to ship animals to USDA-certified facilities.

However, even proponents of the program acknowledge it would be expensive for ODA to re-establish state meat inspection, which was ended in Oregon in the 1970s for financial reasons.

"Budget cuts came along and eliminated it," said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.

There are 13 USDA-inspected meat facilities in Oregon where livestock can be processed for commercial sale, which means ranchers who want to sell to restaurants and retail outlets must often travel for hours to reach one, he said.

Meanwhile, in Oregon there are also 16 non-USDA facilities, where people can take livestock for processing for their own consumption, Rosa said. Oftentimes, consumers will join together to buy an animal and split up the processed meat among them.

Reinstating state meat inspection would hopefully strengthen connections between local ranchers and consumers who want to buy their meat, while also raising the demand for livestock among small-scale processors — thus increasing prices to growers, he said.

"We hope it will increase processing," Rosa said.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for local livestock processing, as major beef packers have constrained production to simultaneously reduce meat output while creating a surplus of slaughter-ready cattle, he said.

"When COVID hit, we really saw demand for local beef and local products," Rosa said.

The passage of HB 4206 wouldn't be an immediate solution to the problem, as the ODA would still need funding to operate such a state meat inspection program and small-scale processors would need cash to upgrade their facilities to federal standards, he said. "The hope is long-term."

However, the legislation to re-establish state meat inspection has also encountered doubts about its efficiency, especially since Oregon's tax revenues are suffering during the coronavirus outbreak.

"I'm skeptical they'll have the money or the people or the time to set up a whole new program," executive secretary of the Northwest Meat Processors Association.

Apart from the expense, the system may not make sense for small-scale processors to upgrade their facilities to USDA standards — which is required of all commercial processors — but still limit their meat sales to Oregon, Haun said.

"Personally, I feel if you're going to go, you might as well just go federal," he said.

Furthermore, the USDA will cover the costs of inspection while the meat processor would have to pay ODA fees to cover part of the agency's cost, with the rest being shouldered by tax dollars, said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of Oregon State University's Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.

The total cost of a state meat inspection program would be high but it wouldn't be attractive to small non-USDA processors, Thistlethwaite said.

"If they had wanted to become inspected, they would have just become USDA inspected," she said. "That meat can go anywhere. It can cross state lines and international boundaries."

The real problem is that meeting USDA standards requires fully washable walls and likely upgrades to temperature control systems and wastewater disposal systems, among other changes, Thistlethwaite said.

Meanwhile, small-scale non-USDA processors often work with older equipment and can't afford such improvements, she said. "These operators often don't have a lot of profits to reinvest in their facilities."

However, Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said these criticisms are "misinformed" based on the original language of a bill considered during the regular legislative session, which would have been limited to in-state sales.

Under an amended version, which is before lawmakers during the special session, the state inspected meat would be approved for interstate commerce as if it were USDA inspected, Brock Smith said.

"The ODA employees will be USDA certified and will be able to certify as if they were USDA employees," he said.

As for the funding questions, Brock Smith said the USDA is obligated to pay half the expense of inspecting facilities under state supervision.

There's also the possibility of obtaining federal stimulus money to help small processors upgrade their facilities to comply with USDA standards, he said.

The main advantage of a state meat inspection program is that ODA employees will be able to move among smaller facilities that don't process large numbers of animals every day, Brock Smith said.

"This is meant to help the smaller guys, the specialty and grass-fed guys," he said.

The reality of rolling out a state meat inspection program in Oregon is that HB 4206 would only be the first step in the process, said Lauren Henderson, assistant director at ODA.

The bill merely authorizes a state meat inspection program, which would then need about $800,000 a year from Oregon to become fully operational, Henderson said. USDA would match the cost of inspections dollar-for-dollar.

Any facility participating in that state meat inspection program would initially be limited to in-state commercial sales, until the USDA decides that Oregon's program is up to federal standards for interstate shipment, he said.

"This is not an overnight thing we're going to create," Henderson said. "It's like a complicated puzzle. It takes everyone to make this work."

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