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Modest meat reforms would help Americans stay fed during the pandemic

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Recent stories of farmers euthanizing livestock and dumping milk have startled many Americans, particularly those of us attempting to weather the economic shutdown by staggering trips to the grocery store every two weeks, or longer. These troubling stories are leaving many to wonder about the state of America’s food supply chains.

Arising from the displacement of food supplied to large-scale distributors such as restaurants, hotels, and schools, which have been forced to close or restrict operations during the pandemic, this supply chain is separate and distinct from food stocked by grocery stores and supplied directly to the consumer.

Although we are already seeing the effects of the government-ordered shutdowns ripple throughout the economy, there are some reforms in the short-term that can help both producers and consumers of local meat.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01), a long-time organic farmer and liberal Democrat, is pairing up with Congressman Thomas Massie (KY-04), a libertarian-leaning Republican who built his own in-ground greenhouse on his off-the-grid homestead in northeast Kentucky. The unlikely bipartisan duo both raise cattle and have ongoing concerns about the nation’s meat supply, even before the economic shutdown threw it off the rails.

Massie and Pingree, along with Democrats from California, Republicans from the Deep South, and Congress’s lone Libertarian, are sponsoring the PRIME Act to allow states to relax their rules on the transfer of custom-slaughtered meat within their borders. This is the third Congress in which Massie and Pingree have submitted the bill, and they are hopeful that this crisis will help many other members of Congress finally see its value.

Currently, some custom-slaughtered meat must follow federal meat packaging rules, requiring it to travel through a USDA-inspected facility. Only those cuts for farmers’ and ranchers’ personal, household, guest, and employee use are exempt from this requirement. The PRIME Act would broaden this exemption to allow slaughterhouses to serve consumers directly, as well as establishments that prepare food for the public, as long as each party follows state law.

The press release from the Pingree and Massie offices describes the problem:

“…in order to sell individual cuts of locally-raised meats to consumers, farmers and ranchers must first send their animals to one of a limited number of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses. These slaughterhouses are sometimes hundreds of miles away, which adds substantial transportation cost, and also increases the chance that meat raised locally will be co-mingled with industrially-produced meat.”

At the state level, Amanda Beal, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF) recently sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Program, requesting the department waive federal rules on the transfer of meat over state borders if it has passed a state inspection.

In her letter, Commissioner Beal describes how this will help consumers and food pantries acquire locally-inspected meat during the shutdown imposed over the spread of COVID-19: 

“Allowing state-inspected meat to temporarily cross state lines will greatly support regional market expansion opportunities, smooth out bottlenecks in the local food chain, reduce the need to cull healthy livestock and poultry, and support our food-insecure during this extremely difficult time.”

Making these two changes at the federal level, one to give states more leeway, and one to promote interstate commerce by relaxing federal rules, would help consumers better acquire locally-raised meat, no matter from which state it comes. While Commissioner Beal is calling for the USDA to temporarily waive inspection requirements, there would be little justification for reapplying this restriction on the food supply in whatever the post-pandemic days look like.

I have written previously on the difficult situations in which farmers may find themselves when onerous government regulations run up against real life. Unruly food rules harm not only farmers, but consumers as well. 

Americans, today more than ever, need assurances that they will have access to nutritious food. The two modest reforms mentioned here can do much to provide those assurances, and give broader access to locally raised meats for people across the nation. It could also help farmers close gaps in their own faltering supply chains, enabling them to sell more of their products directly to the people.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around the state.

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