WASHINGTON (AP) — Small meat plants that operate under state inspection programs might soon be allowed to market their products across state lines for the first time.
The provision, included Tuesday in the Senate's proposed farm bill, is the result of a compromise reached by a coalition of consumer, labor and farm groups. It comes amid growing concerns about food safety after last month's massive recall of hamburger meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
The legislation would create a new, optional inspection program that provides federal oversight of state-inspected facilities that want to ship products across state lines.
Under current law, only federally inspected plants can ship meat and poultry across state lines. Meatpackers in Missouri, Kansas and 25 other states operating under a state inspection system have long complained that the law unfairly restricts sales.
''For too long, small producers have been shut out of markets but will now be able to ship their high-quality products across state lines,'' said Tom Buis, president of the National Farm Bureau.
Consumer groups had expressed concerns earlier this year after the House passed a version of the farm bill with language that ended the 40-year-old requirement that all meat and poultry sold interstate must be federally inspected. That provision was backed by House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Carly Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America said the Senate Agriculture Committee compromise ''safeguards public health'' by requiring small meat plants to meet all federal inspection requirements before shipping their products in interstate commerce.
''This law reinforces the principle that the first priority of meat and poultry inspection is protecting us and our families from adulterated food products,'' Foreman said.
Processing plants with up to 25 employees would be eligible to participate in the program and companies would be required to use a federal stamp of inspection.
''The present system is simply unfair and wrong,'' said Roger Johnson, president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. ''Meat and poultry products from nearly 40 countries can be shipped and sold anywhere in the United States, while state-inspected products are limited to their state of origin.''