Consumer advocates are warning that a new bill that would trim the role of federal meat inspectors may be hazardous to your health. The proposal, inserted by Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio into the 2008 Farm Bill, would allow farms with fewer than 50 employees to have their meat inspected by state officials before selling it outside of their home state. Currently, they must have their meat approved and handled by federal meat inspectors if they want to sell it across state lines. Proponents say the measure would help small farms compete with larger meat companies by reducing the cost of transporting livestock long distances to federal facilities. But critics say it could lower food safety standards for American consumers and encourage many farms to move to states with less restrictive inspection practices. "This is a threat to the progress we’ve made in building up the food safety network," said Patricia Buck of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. "I understand the small businessman," she said. But if the law passes as it’s written, "you’re going to have migration to those states with lower standards." Buck’s organization is part of a group, calling itself the Safe Foods Coalition, which has mobilized to block the provision. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. "It’s common sense that the interstate ban is outdated and unfair," said Charlie Ingram, a lobbyist for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), which supports the provision. "Small, family-owned businesses…are prevented from competing in the national marketplace." Claims that the bill would weaken food safety are "absolutely untrue," Ingram said. He noted that state facilities are required to adhere to voluminous federal standards, the same ones that are followed by federal meat inspection facilities. But critics are concerned that isn’t enforced. They cite a 2006 report by the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general, which criticized federal oversight of state meat inspection facilities. USDA inspectors at state facilities reported violations including insects in meat processing areas, "residue" from previous days’ meat left on cutting boards, "soot-like material" on swine carcasses and workers who ignored temperature requirements while handling meat. Despite observing these violations and others, the USDA inspectors approved the facilities to handle meat, according to the USDA inspector general report. NASDA’s Ingram said the report wasn’t germane to the debate. "There was never any food safety issue or concern raised by that report," he said. But critics aren’t assuaged. Tomorrow, the Consumer Federation of America will hold a press conference along with unions representing federal meat inspectors to call for the provision to be removed. The Farm Bill passed the House in July and is awaiting consideration by the Senate. "This bill…is a product of massive lobbying efforts by meat producers who are searching for more ‘understanding’ and ‘flexible’ enforcement by state inspectors without regards to public health," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, whose members could lose their jobs as a result of the provision. In a statement to ABCNews.com, Rep. Space defended the bill.
"We want to help our producers move their meat from state to state, and we can do that while making sure we maintain the highest of safety standards," he said. This post has been updated. Click Here to Register to Receive Blotter Alerts.