Are inspection cuts shortsighted?
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Indiana's plan to lay off some meat inspectors to save money and reduce the time inspectors spend with small, independent processors has the industry and farmers fearing it could hurt what has been a growing industry. It's not clear how many of the state's 52 inspectors will be let go, but meatpackers say any layoffs will prevent them from growing to meet demand for locally raised meat. And, if state inspectors are scarce or unavailable, small meatpackers who can't afford to upgrade for federal inspections could cut back their operations or go under. Their fears highlight a dilemma lawmakers in many states face as tax revenues decline and they struggle to balance budgets: How deeply do they cut programs that are essential to growing segments of their economies and could generate new tax revenues? "We're one of the small businesses in Indiana that showed growth in a recession year," said Steve Beutler, past president of the Indiana Meat Packers and Processors Association. "Now we can't grow." Industrywide figures for Indiana aren't available, but Beutler said his payroll grew from 15 to 20 workers last year, and that's typical. At a recent meeting of 30 of the state's roughly 130 meat processors, all said their revenues and hiring increased last year, he said. Federal inspection is required for meat shipped across state lines. Meatpackers who sell locally can opt for state or federal inspections, and many prefer state ones because they say state inspectors are more accessible, flexible, attuned to the needs of small business and better at educating them on new requirements. Also, upgrading to meet federal standards, which require such things as separate showers for federal inspectors, can cost $250,000, nearly the average annual value of meat leaving s tate- inspected plant s i n Indiana. Twenty-seven states have their own meat inspection programs, which must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for preslaughter and post-mortem inspection of animals, recordkeeping, sanitation and other matters. Several states have looked at their programs as places where money could be saved as they try to balance their budgets, said Bob Ehart, director of public policy for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.