MILWAUKEE (AP) — Rick Reams is allowed to sell his popular bratwurst and sausages to customers who live 100 miles to the east of his Hudson store, but not to buyers across the Mississippi River a few miles to the west in Minnesota.
That could soon change.
Federal regulations currently prevent most small meat processors from shipping their products across state borders. That rule is being relaxed, however, and Wisconsin officials say their state is poised to see the most benefit. Meat producers are less confident, taking a wait-and-see approach before jumping into a program that could open up new markets but also bury them under bureaucratic red tape.
Reams can sell to Minnesota buyers who walk into RJ's Meats and Groceries and buy enough for their personal needs, he said. However, he's not allowed to make the sale if the buyer is a restaurateur or vendor who plans to resell the meat, or if he has to ship the product across the state border.
"We've had various vendors who wanted to sell our product at the Minnesota State Fair," Reams said. "Like any business owner it pains me to say no."
He may not have to turn away business much longer.
The 2008 Farm Bill allowed for the establishment of a new program under which small processors would be eligible to ship meat and poultry products to different states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just finished writing rules governing how such a program would work, and set a July 1 effective date.
The changes are mostly administrative. State inspections have always had to be at least as stringent as those conducted in accordance with federal standards. But, meat producers say, state inspections tend to be more straight-forward and focus more on the production process than on mounds of paperwork.
Larger meat producers have been able to do interstate shipping for years. Their plants are reviewed by federal inspectors, unlike the smaller plants that are checked by state inspectors.
Some small processers have lobbied for the same access to interstate markets. Others are ambivalent.
Scott Stettler, the co-owner of Holmen Locker and Meat Market in La Crosse County, said it might be nice to sell into Minnesota and elsewhere, although if he wanted to expand his market he could also target adjacent Wisconsin counties.
"For us it comes down to whether it's cost-effective" to seek interstate-shipping status, he said. "We've got the whole state of Wisconsin that we could send our product to. That's a big area."
Wisconsin officials think the new regulations will benefit their state more than it will others, for two reasons: because Wisconsin has more small meat processors, about 285, than any other state, and because those processors have enough niche products such as bratwurst that customers can't easily get in other states.
Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said the state draws raves for its bratwurst and sausage thanks to its strong heritage of Germans and similar ethnic groups.
"People elsewhere know that about Wisconsin," she said. "It's not quite as famous as Wisconsin cheese but it's close."
In hopes of capitalizing on out-of-state demand, the state plans to hire as many as 10 more meat inspectors in the next two years, with the costs split evenly between the state and the federal government. Wisconsin currently has 50 inspectors plus 6 open positions.
However, even with the combination of fewer regulations and more inspection resources, only about 10 percent to 20 percent of small Wisconsin meat producers seem eager to make the jump, Gilson said.
Reams and Stettler both said they weren't convinced the additional record-keeping and possible bureaucratic demands justified the effort to apply for inclusion.
However, one meat producer who already made the jump said the changes required were so minor that he didn't understand why the rest of the industry didn't follow suit.
Matthew Bayer, the owner of Country Fresh Meats in Weston, said he made the change about three years ago after the Farm Bill allowed for the possibility. He said he figured bureaucrats would take too long to work out the details so he decided not to wait.
The early results have been promising, he said. He now ships snack sticks, which are beef and pork sticks similar to jerky, to convenience stores as far away as Texas. About 10 percent to 15 percent of his revenue comes from out of state, he estimated.
"This could really be developed into a big money-maker," Bayer said.
The main changes he saw were minor cost increases for additional food testing as well as administrative work to make sure his labels complied with confusing regulations, he said.
Even with success stories like his floating around, other meat producers say they're hesitant. Many run small businesses, and say they're not convinced that the federal impositions wouldn't become excessively onerous.
"I'm not going to be the first guy on the block to jump on this," Reams said. "Without seeing how it will all be interpreted, how the inspections are going to be different, I really can't say. Right now I'd have to say I'm indifferent."