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DIRECT Act reduces red tape for smaller meat processors

Bipartisan legislation creates new direct-to-consumer options for producers, processors and small meat markets.

U.S. Reps. Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.) and Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) introduced the Direct Interstate Retail Exemption for Certain Transactions (DIRECT) Act. This legislation will allow state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines through e-commerce, providing small producers and processors with more options to market directly to consumers.

Currently, many states such as South Dakota and Texas have state Meat & Poultry Inspection (MPI) programs that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) as “at least equal to” standards set under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). Under the existing framework, however, state-inspected products can only be sold interstate if approved to do so under the Cooperative Interstate Shipping (CIS) Program.

The DIRECT Act would amend the retail exemption under FMIA and PPIA to allow processors, butchers or other retailers to sell normal retail quantities (300 lb. of beef, 100 lb. of pork and 27.5 lb. of lamb) of MPI state-inspected meat online to consumers across state lines. Because DIRECT Act sales occur via e-commerce, sales are traceable and could be recalled easily. The proposal also includes clear prohibitions on exports, to keep U.S. equivalency agreements with trading partners intact. The DIRECT Act will allow states operating under the CIS system to ship and label product as they currently do.

“As a result of COVID-19, meat processing plants across the country have been forced to close or slow operations, and as a result, we’ve seen a renaissance in small processors,” Johnson said. “Many states, including South Dakota, have inspection standards that are at least equal to what the federal government requires. This bill cuts through red tape and allows producers, processors and retailers to sell state-inspected meat and poultry direct to consumers through online stores across state lines.”

“America’s meat industry has been hit hard by financial challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic,” Cuellar said. “The bipartisan legislation will open up new markets for meat producers and processors by allowing meat inspected by the state to be sold online and across state lines. As a senior member of the [House] agriculture subcommittee on appropriations, I will continue to fight for the men and women who work every day to keep food on our table during these unprecedented times.”

This bill is supported by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA), American Farm Bureau Federation, American Sheep Industry Assn., U.S. Cattlemen’s Assn., South Dakota Cattlemen’s Assn., South Dakota Pork Producers Council and South Dakota Farm Bureau.

“Over the past few months, more Americans looked to e-commerce to purchase essential goods like beef, and an already booming online marketplace further evolved to facilitate purchases and meet consumer demands,” NCBA  president Marty Smith said. “The American beef supply chain must evolve to keep up with the speed of commerce and the demands of modern-day consumers. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. supports the Direct Interstate Retail Exemption for Certain Transactions Act because it helps make it easier for the American cattle producer to meet the growing demand of the American consumer to purchase safe and delicious U.S. beef.”

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced a trend for consumers wanting to source beef directly from ranchers,” South Dakota Cattlemen’s Assn. president Eric Jennings said. “Two of the challenges South Dakota beef producers have faced in developing a direct sales market are a limited population of consumers and very few federally inspected processing facilities. Online sales represent an opportunity for our beef producers to expand their market beyond our limited rural population, but they have been restricted in their broader marketing efforts by prohibitions on interstate shipment of state-inspected meat, coupled with few federally inspected plants.”

Jennings noted that South Dakota has had an excellent state MPI for many years that is equivalent to federal meat inspection. “This bill will allow our producers more freedoms for interstate commerce while still providing a safe beef product for consumers,” he added.

“Small, state-inspected processors have filled the void for many producers this year when larger plants shut down. The DIRECT Act would allow state-inspected plants to sell their product directly to consumers across state lines,” said Scott VanderWal, vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “This presents a new opportunity for producers to reach consumers directly through online sales. Consumers wishing to directly order a South Dakota steak would be able to do just that.”

South Dakota Pork Producers Council president Craig Andersen said, “The bill that Rep. Johnson is introducing is a step to opening up more markets for our local state-inspected locker plants. [During] the last few months, these plants have gone to extraordinary levels to help keep pigs in the food chain. They are in need of extra market access for the product they produce. This bill should also make it easier for producers to harvest and give product to local charities.”

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