Maple Lane Farms in Charleston, the state’s largest slaughterhouse and meat processor, has only been able to sell its products in Maine to date, but a new agreement between state and federal agencies will open its products to national and international markets.
Maple Lane and the other five Maine slaughterhouses and processors that use state inspectors rather than federal ones have only been able to sell their meat and poultry within Maine. The remaining six slaughterhouses and 12 processors are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and already are allowed to sell out of state.
“This is a big deal,” said Barry Higgins, co-owner of the fourth-generation family farm that raises its own animals for meat, and slaughters and process animals for about 80 customers. “It will benefit us and our customers to be able to send out products to markets out of state that have higher prices.”
Maple Lane slaughters and processes 1,200 to 1,400 head of beef a year, as well as more than 2,000 pigs, and 800 lambs and goats. It is at full capacity now, so the new agreement is forcing Higgins, who will be 70 at his next birthday, to think about expanding to handle new sales.
Maine is the first state in New England and the fifth in the country to sign such a Cooperative Interstate Shipment, or CIS, program agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. It joins Indiana, Ohio, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
The agreement was announced Monday by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which will start taking applications Dec. 1.
“The CIS will also potentially double the number of local options for livestock producers who want to be able to harvest and process their animals within Maine but sell their products out of state,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement.
The governor said the CIS will open the market for producers to sell to local businesses with out-of-state locations such as Hannaford, Shaw’s and Walmart.
Livestock producers and Maine slaughterhouses could now potentially sell to colleges, hospitals and other institutions that receive federal money and thus require federally inspected meat and poultry. All meat from a CIS slaughterhouse will have both a state and federal mark of inspection on it.
Slaughterhouses and processors with CIS programs also can export to Canada and elsewhere.
Higgins plans to sign up for the program in January, which he said involves mostly extra paperwork. He said he was one of the farmers pushing for the CIS program. There has been a shortage of USDA inspection services in the state, so giving state inspectors the added CIS program essentially puts the sales opportunities from both types of inspections, which he said are equally safe, on par.
“A lot of our producers are looking for out-of-state markets,” he said. “And the federal government isn’t looking to put more [inspection] plants up here. It’s hard to staff them.”
Dr. Jennifer Eberly, the Maine state veterinarian who oversees the CIS and inspection program, said all of the six state-inspected processing plants qualify for the free program. They need to meet current USDA standards and have fewer than 25 employees.
Eberly said the CIS inspection standards meet the same standards as the USDA’s. One difference is that the meat will have to be tested at a lab in Wisconsin rather than at the current one in Portland.
In addition to Maple Lane Farms, Eberly said Tide Mill Organics in Edmunds plans to sign on to the CIS agreement in January.
“It will be the only organic poultry processor in Maine,” Eberly said. “There is no USDA organic processor.”
Another benefit of the CIS, she said, is that Maine livestock producers that currently must use USDA plants because they have established accounts out of state could, under the CIS agreement, go to more conveniently located state inspection plants.
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