From the Missouri Department of Agriculture
Every Saturday from March through October, shoppers at the Columbia Farmers Market line up to purchase pork chops, roasts, ribs, bacon and other products from Jim and Deanna Crocker of Centralia.
Halfway across the state, upscale St. Louis restaurants feature beef, pork, lamb and poultry produced by Greenwood Farms of Newburg. At a Mennonite country store near Versailles, the freezer is stocked with meat bearing the name of a local farmer and a seal of approval from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
The state Meat and Poultry Inspection Program monitors production at facilities that produce meat for sale exclusively within the boundaries of Missouri and certifies that plants processing meat for private consumption are clean and safe.
“When people purchase meat that was raised locally, the chances are very good that this department provided the inspection services to assure safety and quality,” said Jon Hagler, state director of agriculture. “In a very real way, the shortest distance between pasture and dinner plate often passes through a state-inspected processing facility.”
Inspection is the key to putting meat on the grill. No meat can be sold to consumers in America unless an official inspector — either state or federal — is present at the time of harvest. Federal regulations require USDA inspection for any meat sold across state lines. State programs, which must be equal to or better than federal standards, inspect facilities that supply meat to local markets.
Ten Department of Agriculture inspectors travel the state and visit 27 state-licensed meat-processing plants and three poultry facilities to ensure that the food they produce meets USDA standards as “wholesome, unadulterated and properly labeled.”
Inspectors observe livestock handling to confirm that animals are treated humanely. They monitor harvest procedures to make sure all regulations are followed and examine carcasses for any signs of disease. In addition, the department’s inspectors review the sanitation, labeling and food safety practices of retail stores that repackage federally inspected meat and 137 “custom exempt” facilities that process animals for personal consumption.
USDA regulations are often intimidating to small-business owners, especially those first entering the commercial meat market. Missouri’s meat and poultry inspectors offer guidance and advice that helps processors make sense of these complex rules.
“We’re much more hands-on than the federal inspectors,” said Harold Treese, who heads the Meat and Poultry Inspection Program for the state Agriculture Department. “We assist these plants and work to get them ready for inspection.”
By helping processors comply with USDA standards, the state inspection program encourages the continued success of local businesses that serve the needs of low-volume and specialty livestock producers. State-inspected plants are typically smaller than federal plants and often provide custom services that allow producers to develop particular cuts and offer unique products to satisfy consumers’ increasing appetite for locally produced foods.
“These small state-inspected plants give the consumer another option when buying meat and provide a convenience for the producer,” said Scott Heintz, owner of Heintz Processing, a state-licensed plant in Cuba and president of the Missouri Association of Meat Producers. “State inspection allows them to fill a niche market, selling at the local farmers market or in restaurants.”
When the local FFA club holds a fundraiser barbecue, it often serves pork and beef donated by a local producer and processed at a state-inspected plant. Elk and bison ranchers rely on state-inspection so they can sell their products. When a family farm decides to diversify by marketing jerky or other meat snacks, they often take their recipe to a state-inspected plant.
Jim and Deanna Crocker said they would have given up raising hogs in Boone County years ago if it were not for the direct-to-consumer marketing that local processing and state inspection allows.
“We would not be in business if we had not changed the way we sell our pork,” said Jim Crocker, president of Boone County Pork Producers. “By going to the farmers market, we can control our price from start to finish.”
The Crocker’s rely on the services of Davis Meat Processing, a small state-inspected facility in Jonesburg. The facility, a member of the AgriMissouri program, provides more than 30 cuts of packaged pork products for the Crockers, including four types of bratwurst and hot dogs free of added nitrites. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them,” Deanna Crocker said of their state-inspected processor.