A long-running fight to ship state-inspected meats outside their own regulatory borders could have an ally in a new and innovative technology: the internet.

A new bill introduced Tuesday would allow for meat processed at certain state-inspected facilities and sold via e-commerce to be shipped across state lines. The bill’s supporters say it would unlock a host of direct-to-consumer opportunities for producers while still maintaining traceability and recall requirements necessary to keep food safety and trade agreements in check.

“I think we have seen through COVID-19 the frailties in our food supply system, and I think we understand that there could be a larger role for small processors to play,” Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

Johnson, along with Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar, introduced on Tuesday the Direct Interstate Retail Exemption for. Certain Transactions Act, or DIRECT Act. The bill would grant interstate shipping authorization to state meat and poultry inspection programs deemed by the federal government as “at least equal to” standards enforced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for products sold through e-commerce.

The issue of state-inspected facilities being limited in their sales potential is not a new one, but it took on a new level of importance in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Shuttered packing plants and supply shortages led many producers and consumers to pursue a direct-marketing model to stock their freezers with meat, only to realize that their efforts would be constrained by state borders.

The issue has previously been bogged down by food safety, recall, and trade concerns, but Johnson said he thinks the bill “strikes the right balance in providing flexibility for interstate sale direct-to-consumer.” He specifically cited the meat processing facility at South Dakota State University, which has taken on additional volume during the COVID-19 pandemic but is limited in its sales potential since it is only state inspected.

“I think this is going to create, not just for SDSU, but for all kinds of small lockers and processors an ability to be more entrepreneurial and to ship directly to the consumer,” Johnson added. “We have seen just nationally, broadly, that is something consumers are interested in. There are a number of direct-to-your-home meat stores, and there isn’t any reason that these small, state-inspected processors shouldn’t be able to get in on that game.”

Dusty Johnson

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D.

The DIRECT Act is hardly the first piece of legislation to attempt to solve the issue. In 2018, Johnson’s fellow South Dakotan, Sen. Mike Rounds, introduced the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act, a bill similar to the DIRECT Act that would allow for intrastate sales of the products but would not require the sales be conducted online. The bill was also reintroduced last year and boasts 10 Senate cosponsors; Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney introduced a similar bill in the House earlier this month.

Both bills take a more measured approach than the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (the PRIME Act), which would extend intrastate exemptions to custom-exempt slaughter facilities, which are not subject to the same federal or state requirements as those that sell their products in stores and restaurants; meat from custom facilities is intended for private use.

Both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association – two groups frequently at odds when it comes to policy matters – have thrown their support behind the DIRECT Act (USCA also supported Rounds’ bill while NCBA did not), giving the legislation support from multiple facets of what can be a bitterly divided industry.

“Over the past three months, more Americans have looked to e-commerce to purchase essential goods like beef in an already booming online marketplace,” NCBA lobbyist Danielle Beck said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “We think that especially as this pandemic has evolved, so too should the beef retail market.”

USCA’s Lia Biondo said from their perspective, the bill is “one of those pieces of the larger puzzle that is expanding opportunities for independent processors.

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“We know there isn’t going to be a silver bullet solution that’s going to do it,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of these piecemeal approaches to finding these avenues that independent processors can use to reach consumers.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation and American Sheep Industry Association are also supporting the bill.

The legislation and the broader underlying issue both face a tight timeline for action. Should the bill be included in the Senate’s coronavirus relief package expected to be drafted in July, it will need a member in that chamber to push the initiative. If nothing else, the legislation could also serve as a marker bill for the upcoming farm bill, although that would only prolong the issue rather than bringing it to a speedy conclusion.

“This bill doesn’t go as far as many of us want, but it goes as far as, legally and operationally, we can,” Johnson said. “Anyone that is interested in making real progress is going to appreciate that this does have an opportunity to move forward.”

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