Ohio this week became the first state certified to ship meat from state-inspected packing plants across state lines. The agreement is part of USDA's Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program, which allows states to qualify their state-inspected plants to function more like federally inspected plants. Normally, state-inspected packers can only market their meat within their state.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan held a news conference on Thursday to announce the agreement with Ohio and discuss the program in general.

Noting that President Obama’s administration has been a strong advocate for local and regional food systems, Merrigan says the program is intended to expand market opportunities for small processors, keep their businesses viable and improve consumer access to local foods while ensuring a robust food-safety system.

The program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill, its regulations finalized in May of 2011 and launched in July 2011, so it took about one year for the first state to gain approval. Merrigan says she hopes Ohio’s approval will “break the logjam” and other states will soon become certified under the program through the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). South Dakota, Indiana and Wisconsin, the state with the most state-inspected plants, are currently pursuing approval for interstate shipments.

There are 27 states with state meat-inspection systems. FSIS has a list of participating states on its website.

To gain approval for interstate shipments under the program, a state must adapt its meat inspection system to the same standards as the federal system. Merrigan says the necessary changes vary from state to state, depending on how their inspection processes and standards differ from that in federally inspected plants.

The program is for small plants with 25 or fewer employees, but Merrigan says FSIS offers some flexibility for plants that employ up to 35 workers, particularly those that hire additional seasonal help such as during hunting seasons. These larger plants might, however, be required to transition to federal inspection eventually if they want to market meat across state lines.

Plant owners or managers interested in participating in the program should contact their state meat-inspection agency and encourage them to work with FSIS to bring their system into compliance. Merrigan also encourages anyone interested in local and regional food systems to use the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass, an interactive map showing local-food infrastructure across the United States, including local meat plants, and recipients of USDA funds though various programs