Meating the Needs of the Future

FarWriting at Civileats.com, Lauren Dixon informs us that since the Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967, the number of meat processors in the U.S. has dropped precipitously, with “with some states [now] only offering one USDA-inspected plant, and roughly half of the states in the nation completely lacking such a facility.” The sticking point here is “USDA-inspected.” Any facility that slaughters and processes animals for eventual sale to consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, etc., must, according to the WMA, meet safety and sanitation criteria set at the federal level by the USDA and be subject to regular inspection. As these criteria are generally designed for large-scale processing, and as they regularly get updated, smaller processors can’t afford to comply and so get forced out of business. The result, as Dixon says, is that now, even “[i]n a time of growing awareness about the ills of factory farming and increasing demand for local, pasture-raised meat, many small producers who might sell direct to consumers just don’t have time to drive for hours to get it processed.” The flip-side of this is, of course, a system whose benefits accrue to those operating at a large scale, as is shown by the massive consolidation in the meat-packing industry, where, according to Dixon, “just four companies produce 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S[;] [a]nother four companies produce 60 percent of the pork, and five produce 60 percent of the poultry.”   (See Christopher Leonard’s recent book The Meat Racket for how we got to this point.)

In July, two members of Congress, Republican Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree from Maine, introduced a bill aimed to change all this: the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. As Dixon summarizes it,

The PRIME Act would effectively place regulatory responsibility back in the hands of individual states. This would give states the freedom to allow small farms to sell their custom-processed products directly to consumers, grocery stores, and restaurants within state lines, avoiding federal inspection. In addition to making it easier for local producers to sell their meat, Pingree and Massie also believe the bill would revive the small-scale meat processing industry in the United States.

Whether the bill has much of a chance to pass is uncertain. Apart from the basic dysfunction of Congress these days, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association has, Dixon reports, promised to oppose it if it looks like it is gaining legislative traction. And once the deep pockets of industry trade groups come into play, no legislation is safe.

I am skeptical, however, that a resurgence in local meat processors would do much to lower the cost of local, sustainably raised meat. Having purchased a number of half-hogs, half-goats, quarter-cows, and whole poultry from local farmers over the last decade here in Kalamazoo (which is fortunate to have a number of USDA certified processing facilities not too far away), my understanding is that most of the cost is at the production end, not in the processing. Still, for restaurants or grocery stores, it’s possible that knocking, say, 10-15% off the cost would be what makes the difference between being able to sell good local meat and not, and if more competition in the meat-processing industry would lead to that, great. We should remember, though, that animals raised in ecologically appropriate ways that pay a fair return to the farmer are just going to cost more than their industrial brethren. And as a nation, we should be eating much less, but more expensive, meat.

Effects on costs aside, the PRIME Act would be a really good thing, given the well-known negative aspects of our current meat production system: excess animal waste, overuse of antibiotics, potential for widespread food-borne illness, dangerous working conditions at slaughterhouses, inhumane treatment of animals, concentration of corporate power, lack of farmer equity, etc. (again, see Leonard’s book). Anything that would encourage and enable farmers to raise livestock in ways that don’t contribute to these problems is worth supporting.

So write to your congress person to ask them to support this legislation!


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