Meat Me Halfway

A friend of mine requested a post on the meat industry, and I’ve been wondering where to start. There’s just so much! I’d like to begin with the basics of how we regulate and handle meat in the United States.

The USDA is charged with regulating traditional meat and poultry, not including wild game. Catfish, processed eggs, and products that contain meat and poultry are also under its umbrella. Products with more than 3% raw meat, 2% cooked meat or poultry, 30% meat extract, or 10% poultry parts fit this definition.

Anything not in the above list is regulated by the FDA. This includes shell eggs, most seafood, and game meats. As you can guess, this causes some overlap and gray areas. The two agencies haven’t always cooperated, but are looking to take a more collaborative approach in the future. Especially with new technology emerging, there is a lot to tackle, a notable example being lab-grown meat.

Back to what they do on the regular. USDA regulations are largely carried out through the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), who enforce the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act. They set food safety standards and conduct inspections of processing, slaughter, import, and warehouse facilities. These facilities are not allowed to operate or sell across state lines until passing.

Once a carcass is inspected and passed, it will be stamped with something resembling the following picture. Establishment numbers depend on the facility, and can be looked up here.

USDA FSIS EST and Poultry Icons

These inspections begin prior to slaughter, where the USDA checks that livestock is humanely handled. This includes things like having access to water and feed, lack of excessive prodding, and not being subject to adverse weather conditions. Humane slaughter includes stunning animals before slaughter and ensuring unconsciousness until death, though there is an exception for religious reasons.  There is a lot of criteria for this, so I only included some highlights. Follow the first two links in this paragraph if you are curious to know more.

Something to keep in mind is that the above paragraph doesn’t apply to chickens or birds. Poultry processing must instead follow good commercial practices. This includes proper stunning and not allowing them to freeze or die from heat exhaustion. Earlier this year, there was a petition to include poultry in the definition of livestock, but it was rejected by the USDA, continuing the agency’s voluntary model for poultry establishments.

And what about the wild game that doesn’t fit under the USDA? FSIS does perform voluntary inspections upon request for exotic animals including reindeer, elk, deer, antelope, water buffalo, bison, and wild birds. In addition, many states have their own regulations regarding wild game and will perform inspections. These agencies and regulations can vary widely, and meat inspected by a state agency can’t be sold in a different state.

As you can see, meat regulations are complicated and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Stay tuned for more posts on the meat industry, controversies over humane handling, and remember to post any specific questions you have!

I’ll leave you with a fun fact: Pigs are the most widely consumed meat worldwide, and that’s why I chose to feature their picture in this post.

Image by: Suzanne Tucker

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