National Association of State Meat & Food Inspection Directors
National Meat Association
San Diego, CA
October 14, 2003
Good Morning! Thank you, Art, for inviting me here this morning.
Welcome to California. Just one week ago, we had a political earthquake in California that you just may have heard about. The California economy is, after all, the 5th largest economy in the world – so we’re not exactly chicken nuggets! The reason that I even mention politics up here, this early in the morning, is that whether we like it or not, politics is interwoven with everything that goes on in our lives. It’s part of the fight against terrorism and the war we are waging against Saddam Hussein; it’s part of international trade, both import and export; it’s part of the market-based economy that the United States is built on; it’s part of the environment decisions that are at dispute in every little town and big city in this country. In fact, politics has a very big role to play in the food business.
I’d like this morning to give you some of my philosophy about what’s important to those of us associated with the meat and poultry supply. And I mean people like you representing inspection officials; and people like me representing the regulated industry. We’ve all heard the horror stories of what was going on in Chicago a century ago. It’s the legend of The Jungle. It’s interesting to know that politics were as important in President Theodore Roosevelt’s time as they are today. The statutory authority of the Federal Meat Inspection Act has assured, for a hundred years, that livestock to be converted into food that people eat come from healthy animals. The carcasses are subject to sanitary dressing procedures designed to assure wholesomeness. In the last ten years, we’ve added a component to the traditional organoleptic inspection – and in addition to chemical and biological residues, today’s procedures require that we remove invisible microbiological defects.
In my view, ante and post mortem inspection are as important, if not more important than they have ever been. The opportunity for criminal behavior on the fringes of an industry that is powerfully motivated to produce safe and wholesome meat is still alive and well. Only a few years ago, in Oakland, California, the USDA’s IG and FBI raided a sausage company suspected of using uninspected meat to make inspected sausage. I’m glad to say, the firm no longer exists. In fact, there was an incredibly coincidental fire at the plant a few days after the raid that destroyed much needed evidence to convict the wrong-doers. When the opportunity for economic gain at the expense of public health continues to exist, it is important to have a strong, independent regulatory program paid for out of the general tax revenues to assure the safety of meat and poultry for Americans.
Mike Taylor, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety in the 1990s, and an experienced food lawyer, designed very carefully a Mega-Reg that was finalized in 1996 that pushed to the limits regulatory changes in the then 90-year old inspection system. It was a paradigm shift, from absolute regulatory prerogative by the regulatory agency to the principle that regulatory officials would oversee and verify that official establishments had a formal written plan, a HACCP plan and supporting SSOPs and other pre-requisite programs, that would assure the safety of meat and poultry. Mind you, the inspection authority still had to carry out the statutory ante and post mortem inspection activities, but some of this was converted to greater company responsibility for “other consumer protections” – OCPs, under the HIMP system. I think that HIMP was an admirable program for healthy young poultry, but that it is less optimal for large animals, and not well-suited for older livestock and spent poultry.
The industry was put on notice that it needed to train its managers, and that every company must develop written procedures describing how it would meet the HACCP requirements. This was a big shift, from the regulatory mandate of “thou shall do this and that…” to “you write the plan, we’ll look at it, and if we like it, you’ll operate.” The industry took this change seriously. Thousands of industry men and women took HACCP training and attended classes to learn how to develop the kinds of programs that were mandated by the regulations. Unfortunately, the leadership at USDA rejected the concept of joint training of their operational personnel alongside the industry folks, and we’ve paid a serious price for the consequences.
Now I could take up the rest of my time and tell you how the industry was forced to the wall and had no option but to seek legal intervention in three historic cases: Supreme Beef in which USDA tried to hold a beef grinder responsible for invisible defects that were on the USDA inspected and passed beef that the company bought from other firms; Velasam Corp. where individual inspection personnel have been found responsible to the tune of $1.75 million for the improper exercise of their authority; and Nebraska Beef where inspection was suspended in a highly retaliatory manner after the company protested about inspection performance. In the case of Nebraska Beef and Supreme Beef, the Court issued Temporary Restraining Orders, and if you know a little about the judicial process, you will know that it takes a very high standard to get a Court to substitute its judgment for judgment and action of the regulatory officials when the issue is food safety. If you want to ask more about these cases, we can do so in Q&As.
What I would like to talk about is the politics of something very dear to your hearts and minds – the chances of interstate shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry products. It is thoroughly illogical that the regulatory authority can accept meat produced under a system in a foreign country, deemed by certain measurements to be “equivalent” to the U.S. system, and not accept for interstate commerce meat and poultry produced under an “equal to” state system. Only confused legislators who did not understand the system could have developed such a legislative dichotomy. I think some of them, or maybe their direct heirs, are still in Washington and responsible for the impossible terms of the COOL legislation in the last Farm Bill.
I know that you have tried to articulate the issue, and at times seemed to be gaining on it with some of the swing voters in the consumer groups, but they wanted to use the issue to leverage their interests for other grossly unacceptable regulatory excesses, such as mandatory microbiological standards, civil penalties, and mandatory recall authority, and the fragile political coalition that was willing to move the interstate legislation fell apart.
I would suggest to you that it is time, once again, to test the waters. NMA will not be a lead organization to spear-head the effort, because it is not that critical an issue for most of our members for us to invest the major resources necessary to move forward. We will be a supporting player. We will not obstruct, so long as such an effort doesn’t emerge with lots of unrelated changes such as what happened last time. You will hear after me today from my friend, Bernie Shire at American Association of Meat Processors, and I rather suspect that the members of his organization feel much more deeply about this issue.
I would suggest that the remedies now being initiated by the winner in last week’s California political earthquake are worthy of consideration, and maybe emulation. The Governor-elect’s first official action was to appoint a broad, bi-partisan transition team that spanned the political spectrum, from conservative Congressman David Dreier to Liberal-mind Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown. Indeed, Mayor Brown was considered one of the most outstanding legislators in Sacramento and he has enormous persuasive powers over leading Democrats in the State system with roots in his City.
To move, the issue of interstate shipment for state inspected product needs a powerful legislative advocate, and this needs to be someone that will want to be responsive to both his constituents and to his Congressional peers. And like the California Governor-elect, he will need to be a legislator who can be persuasive with his peers across party lines. He’ll have to do some tough arm wrestling to resist pet amendments that have nothing to do with the basic issue of interstate shipment of state inspected product.
I leave you with this thought: Harnessing this activity is like assembling an orchestra to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. NMA will be a supporting player, say like the piccolo or the trombone. But the symphony will only go on if you have a Conductor, lots of string instruments, the tympani and the drums and the finale has a massive choir.
Thanks for listening to me this morning, and I’d be glad to hear your questions.