Thursday, September 28, 2023

It's Our Meat and Our Safety


Is it better to have meat inspections conducted by a state agency or a federal agency? What do you think?

Some New Mexicans who understand the economics of cattle growing and meat processing want to reinstate the state program. Legislation has been introduced a few times, most recently in this year’s legislative session. The previous program was terminated in 2007 after negative reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal law requires that meat sold to the public must be inspected by a government inspector to ensure that it is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the agency in charge. The law allows the program to be turned over to states, provided the state adopts standards at least as strong as the federal ones.

The impetus comes in part from lengthy delays during the COVID crisis. This year’s attempt, HB 205, passed the New Mexico House unanimously but stalled in the Senate.

Meat inspection is not without controversy.

Nationally, there is a perennial argument about letting businesses do their own inspections. Fortunately, it appears common sense is still prevailing. That is, as in virtually any industry, safety inspection is best done by government employees who are independent of the employer and can resist pressure to cut corners for profit. When government has let businesses do their inspections, reports show, the worst violations have occurred. Violations, remember, can mean people get sick.

There is also ongoing pressure to move the process faster, making it impossible for inspectors to examine every animal.

In 2019, before COVID, an investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, as recounted by Iowa public radio, found serious staffing shortages, with inspectors suffering from work overload and burnout and standards being violated.

In 2013 the process almost ground to a halt. The department was almost forced to furlough large numbers of inspectors, which would have effectively closed plants and temporarily shut down Americans’ supply of meat. The reason was the so-called sequester.

In 2011 Congress was so dysfunctional that it could not agree on the debt ceiling. (Remember the debt ceiling?) To prevent a crisis, a law was passed creating a special committee of Congress to work out an agreement, with the condition that if the committee failed, automatic spending cuts would follow. That was the sequester. Members believed the sequester was so drastic that surely the committee would find a way to avoid it. But the committee failed, and the sequester took effect.

The sequester did not distinguish between departments that could absorb budget cuts without risking public safety and those that could not.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the department, having already done all other possible budget cuts, would have to furlough meat inspectors for two weeks.

As reported by Food Safety News, “Vilsack noted that it won’t just be the roughly 8,000 meat inspectors in more than 6,000 plants that are impacted, but also the 250,000 people who work in the plants.” It would also shut down the nation’s meat supply and cause havoc among cattle growers.

Somehow the department managed to avoid this. But we are always a little too close to the next budget cut that adds a little more risk to the meat that could end up on your dinner table.

Meat inspection is one of many functions of government that operate far from public view, so it’s easy to forget that food safety is one of the programs funded by our tax dollars.

If the New Mexico meat inspection bill is introduced again next year, and passes this time, it will probably help the state’s economy but, more importantly, it will give us the opportunity to make sure it’s fully funded and done properly. The rest will be up to us.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through


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