Rep. Johnson introduced DIRECT Act to expand opportunities for smaller meat processors Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO)– The coronavirus pandemic hit South Dakota’s meat industry hard. However, Representative Dusty Johnson, along with Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, introduced a bill that will provide new opportunities to the nation’s smaller meat processors.

Johnson’s bill, the Direct Interstate Retail Exemption for Certain Transactions (DIRECT) Act, would allow meat processing plants to sell normal retail quantities (300 lbs. of beef, 100 lbs. of pork, 27.5 lbs. of lamb) of their state inspected product across state lines via eCommerce. Currently, only federally inspected meat can be sold across state lines.

Johnson said that South Dakota’s state inspection is every bit as good as the inspection at the federal level.

“Processors and producers are all telling me this is the right thing to do,” Johnson said. “I think they also like the fact that politically, this can be accomplished… I think the thing that they really appreciate about the DIRECT Act is that we can get this done… This would allow more competition in that processing and packing space, and plus, I think it would unlock a lot of entrepreneurship at the small meat packer and processor level.”

Johnson is confident that consumers are going to love it.

“Everybody loves getting good meat products at home,” Johnson said.

Johnson has not heard a lot of concerns about the bill. He said there was a little concern from USDA, however, after discussing that there would need to be an eCommerce component, they understood how quickly they would be able to track down individuals who might have received meat that had a problem.

“Once they understood that recall and follow-up could be done very quickly, I think they came around and they understood the value of the concept,” Johnson said.

Johnson does not view this bill as a “silver bullet” he said.

“This is not going to transform the meat market,” Johnson said. “But I do think this will provide some extra opportunity for entrepreneurs and consumers.”

He compared this concept to the craft beer market, with smaller businesses designing different recipes and how receptive consumers have been to that. He thinks there could be a similar opportunity like that in the meat market.

Johnson does not see a concern with shipping because these facilities are state inspected and are used to shipping within the state, so they have good food handling procedures in place.

Johnson is hoping that the bill will pass along with one of the bigger agricultural bills.

Reaction from South Dakota producers:

“The Farm Bureau policy for many years has been in favor of interstate shipment of state inspected meat. It’s because the state inspection is just as good as the federal inspection but it is less costly and less of a hassle for the small locker plants that want to use it,” Scott VanderWal, Vice President of the American Farm Bureau Federation and President of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation said. “That’s what Representative Johnson is trying to get at by finding a way to make that possible.”

The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has shown some resistance to the issues in this bill, VanderWal said.

“I think it has come down to where it is kind of a political thing,” VanderWal said. “But their reason that they have given, up until this point anyways, is that it is a food safety issue.”

However, VanderWal stated that the state inspection is just as good as the federal inspection, so food safety should not be a concern.

VanderWal said that Johnson’s bill addresses any issues that would arise with the amount of meat that can be shipped in this way and the various technical aspects that would go along with that process.

“We do not see any problems with the bill. We are hopeful that eventually we can get it passed, but we are kind of in an environment now, a political environment, in Washington that is pretty tough to get anything passed,” VanderWal said. “We are going to have to try real hard to help him out with that.”

Shane Odegaard, President of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, said that the council is in favor of this bill.

“It’s a stepping stone, I guess, but it’s a way to open up the doors for our local farmers here in South Dakota, and of course across the United States, and also working in conjunction with our smaller butcher shops and processing plants and giving them more options available to them to market meat across state lines,” Odegaard said.

Odegaard said the bill would be beneficial to small butcher shops, by providing them with a way to market their specialty type products. This would also help to bridge the gap for consumers who are wanting to work with local farmers.

This bill is a good way to open doors and help people put food on their tables, Odegaard said. Due to the pandemic and some of the meat packing plants experiencing some shutdowns, the smaller butcher shops really stepped up and became popular, he said.

State experts do not show concerns with this bill:

South Dakota is one of 27 states that have meat inspection programs, but the product that those state inspected processors make can only be sold within their state, Christina Bakker, Meat Science Field Specialist at SDSU Extension said.

Dustin Oedekoven, State Veterinarian, said that they would really like to see the ability to sell all state meat inspected product across state lines.

“This is at least one potential way meat processors could sell some of their products to consumers in other state. I think it is certainly a step in the right direction,” Oedekoven said.

Oedekoven said there is not really a big difference between state inspected and federally inspected meat.

“USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service provides inspection for processors across the United States,” Oedekoven said. “Here in South Dakota, we have a state meat inspection program. Our program is maintained at least equal to the USDA’s program. So we have to verify with them annually that we continue to maintain our program to the same food safety standards as federally inspected product.”

Oedekoven does not see any concerns with selling state inspected meat across state lines.

Shipping meat products long distancing is something that has been done for a while, both Odekoven and Bakker stated. It is something that can be done safely.

“That is definitely going to be something that those processors are going have to figure out what works for them,” Bakker said. “There are already programs that some processors are shipping products around the U.S. already, so it’s going to come back down to the processors making sure that they have insulated boxes to keep the product cold. Whether they use dry ice or if they are using ice packs or however, they are going to have to come up with a system that they can validate that it is going to work to keep that food within safe temperatures while it’s in transit.”

When it comes to online meat sales, both Oedekoven and Bakker said they do think the online meat market will increase, but they do not see it completely taking over the face-to-face meat sales.

“Certainly those opportunities are there now, and they have been with the internet. I think more people are taking advantage of those opportunities, whether or not that’s going to become a major part of meat process or operations, I am not sure,” Oedekoven said. “I think people still tend to buy more meat directly from either the small processor at that location or at their local grocery store.”

Johnson secured top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee’s Livestock & Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee

On Feb. 10, Johnson became the first Northern Plains congressman in nearly 40 years, to be selected as top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee’s Livestock & Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee.

Johnson said the subcommittee has a lot of hearings to shine a light on what is going on inside the various livestock markets, particularly as they deal with mandatory price reporting. It would also include bill amending processes or mark ups, where they take up some of the important legislation that will impact producers.

“I think it will be valuable to South Dakota and to our part of the world to have people who experience the kind of cattle production that we have here, able to tell their story, not just to me the lone member from South Dakota, but to all of America,” Johnson said.

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