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Small meat plants feel threatened by USDA’s new regs

By Staff | Apr 9, 2010

Paul Bubeck explains the many food safety tests, records and procedures his company, Lewright Meats in Eagle Grove, follows on a daily basis. New USDA regulations threaten to create an even more expansive protocol for food safety validation that, Bubeck said, will force him to close his doors.

EAGLE GROVE – Across the U.S. small meat processing plant owners are hoping for an 11th hour development that will prevent the U.S. Department of agriculture from implementing a new set of regulations that will force them out of business.

The new regulations, proposed by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will require an extensive battery of testing for meat processing products, intended for commercial retail, to validate each plant’s effectiveness in assuring food safety.

On the surface, it sounds like a good thing. But for plant owners like Paul Bubeck, of Lewright Meats in Eagle Grove, and thousands more like him, the new layer of testing will be cost prohibitive.

Bubeck and wife, Barbara, took over operation of Lewright Meats in 1981. Barbara Bubeck’s family started the plant in 1936. In 2009, Ethan Bubeck, the couple’s son and his wife, Shanae, joined the company.

Bubeck said all meat processors, regardless of size, already follow an exacting array of procedures and monitoring protocols to assure food safety, and cannot understand the need for the expanded tests.

According to Dr. Gary Johnson, bureau chief for the state’s meat and inspection department, a division of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the new regulations are designed to validate if the existing protocols are working.

The problem is that a large amount of meat products must be shipped to inspection labs for a battery of expensive tests for which the plants themselves must cover the cost.

In Bubeck’s case, the initial tally for the extensive tests will cost $455,592. That would be followed by an annual ongoing series of tests tallying $140,182.

He said there’s no way he could afford those tests.

“I won’t do it,” he said. “I’ll close the place down first.”

FSIS issued the proposed new rules on March 19 and set a 30-day comment period. The new rules are actually a reinterpretation of food safety validation regulations that were issued in 1996.

On April 19, FSIS will review the comments and either implement the new rules, or alter them. There is no indication from FSIS when the new rules will go into effect.

IDALS’ Johnson said that there were no known food endangerment issues that led to to this heightened version of food safety validation.

Janis Hochstetler, coordinator of IDALS’ food safety regulatory arm, said that the new rules “means that FSIS is reinterpreting what validation means.”

The new validation applies to all meat processors regardless of size, however, it will hit the smaller, or low production, plants even harder.

At each step in meat processing, tests must be conducted against the existence of an array of foodborne illnesses. Each test will require multiple samples.

Eagle Grove’s Bubeck noted that the very large food processors, such as turkey processor West Liberty Foods have fewer products, plus it doesn’t slaughter animals.

However, for plants like Bubeck’s, they need the extensive testing at the slaughter stage for both beef and pork, as well extensive testing for each of its different meat products.

These include fresh meat products, cooked meat products, bacon, and shelf-stable products, all for both beef and pork.

In just one of those products, say, beef slaughter, the new rules would require Lewright Meats to send six samples for testing, costing from $104 to $208 each. Freight cost would be $1,144. Other incidental costs would bring the total for the initial validation to $1,981, and the annual on-going test would be $609.

“We’ve always followed the rules,” Bubeck said, paging through notebooks of records that document that the plant is following its food safety protocols.

Looking over the total costs, Bubeck said, “even if they cut that to 25 percent, I still couldn’t afford that.

“There are so many records that verify everything we do, what is the purpose of them changing the guidelines?”

The Des Moines office of the FSIS declined to comment on the issue.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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