Who will regulate lab meat?

A county inspector (center) and an FDA inspector (right) watch a butcher prepare meat for packaging. The meat area is kept at 50 degrees or below to help prevent bacterial growth on knives and equipment. The regulatory jurisdictions of the USDA and the FDA can come close to overlapping. When new technology—like cultured “meat”—appears on the scene, the lines that separate those jurisdictions can get even blurrier.

The public comment period has closed for USDA’s plans to provide federal funds to expand processing for beef, pork and poultry production nationally.

USDA first announced $500 million in funding for livestock and poultry processors back in July at an event in Iowa as President Joe Biden was signing his executive order on competition. The funds are expected to go toward grants, loans and technical assistance for smaller packers, processors and local meat lockers.

When the funds were announced, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he saw the potential to match funds with private investment, as well as working with states and local economic development officials to leverage the $500 million into potentially billions in investments.

With an Aug. 30 deadline for comments on its supply chain and competition plan, USDA received 460 comments.

Comments

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) provided USDA with its comments on the funds. NASDA recommended flexibility to help deal with workforce shortages and processing infrastructure for small- to mid-sized facilities, as it “is critical to ensuring our food system is built to handle future challenges.” 

NASDA also recommended funds for Cooperative Extension to offer training on meat inspection and sanitary standards. In addition, NASDA suggested offsetting recruitment costs for employers and providing funds for apprenticeship programs. The group also called on USDA to reimburse processors for meat inspector overtime charges. NASDA additionally offered a detailed list of regional proposals.

Several state secretaries of agriculture sent in their own comments as well. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig suggested USDA consider redefining plant size to define very small and small processors. A very small processor has fewer than 10 employees, while a small processor has a range from 10 to 500 workers. Naig recommended some categories for medium- or mid-sized processors based on the number of employees. 

Naig also called on USDA not to exclude state-inspected facilities from grants. Iowa has 250 licensed facilities, of which 150 are under state inspection rules.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) defended the industry and supply chain in their comments, despite “some popular perspectives being espoused about supply chains” due to “black swan” events over the past two years.

“Before trying to ‘fix’ something, it is prudent to look back and acknowledge the benefits that flow from the system as it exists,” NAMI stated.

NAMI then added comments pushing back on complaints about increased consolidation in the industry. In its comments, NAMI criticized adding processing capacity through federal subsidies, stating, “simply for the sake of having added capacity for a notoriously cyclical cattle supply is shortsighted and could distort more significant and longer-term private sector investments.”

NAMI then went on to cite testimony from a Purdue University agricultural economist and a Rabobank analyst who had testified before Congress earlier this year. Regarding labor, though, NAMI suggested USDA look at supporting research and investment in technologies that would reduce the reliance on labor.

Tyson Foods filed its own letter, citing that the company welcomes competition from other processors. Tyson recommended USDA consider ways to help drive more minority and underserved groups into farming through grant programs to overcome barriers to entry. Tyson also stated USDA should increase funding to states and tribes under the Child Care and Development Fund, citing that the pandemic showed the challenges that “gaps in childcare can cause for critical supply changes and meat and poultry processors of all sizes.” 

There should not be any waiting period for families of essential workers to get childcare under those federal grant programs, the company wrote. Tyson also highlighted that USDA should ensure small processors are meeting requirements for food safety and biosecurity, and USDA also should partner with universities to develop technology to help produce and process food. 

The Center for Rural Affairs (CRA) in Nebraska cited that many small-scale, federally inspected processors in Iowa and Nebraska were “severely disappointed” in the eligibility limits of a recent USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Grant program and the financial barriers involved. 

At a minimum, CRA recommended USDA should designate at least $250 million in funds for new infrastructure and expansion of a grant program for small- and mid-sized processors. That should include $125 million for establishments with fewer than 10 workers, or less than $2.5 million in sales, the center proposed.

The American Farm Bureau Federation proposed grants to processors for modernizing or expanding an existing facility, including new building construction; grants to modernize processing or manufacturing equipment; grants for down payments on new buildings for packing facilities; and grants to cost share for implementing federal or state inspections.

Now, the clock begins to tick on just how USDA will start to disperse some of those funds. Chris Clayton, DTN ag policy editor

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