(Emily Larsen, Liberty Headlines) Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME), and Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Rand Paul (R-KY), re-introduced a bill aimed at reviving local meat processing and making farm-to-table meat more accessible.

grass fed beef photo

Photo by USDAgov (CC)

“Despite consumers’ desire to know where their food comes from, federal inspection requirements make it difficult for them to purchase food from local farmers they know and trust,” said Rep. Massie. Massie owns about 50 head of cattle and produces grass-fed beef.

The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, H.R. 2657 and S. 1232, would loosen federal inspection requirements for local meat sold within the state it was produced. Rep. Massie and Rep. Pingree previously introduced the same bill in 2015, but the bill never made it out of committee.

The bill’s sponsors say that current federal safety requirements are unnecessarily burdensome to small farmers and ranchers, and make it more difficult for consumers to access locally-sourced, farm-to-table meat products. Although the bill would loosen the federal regulations, meat producers and slaughterhouses would still have to meet state food standard and safety regulations.

Pingree, the lead Democratic sponsor of the legislation, also raises grass-fed beef at her island farm in her home state.

“The meat [local famers in Maine] raise is in high demand by local customers who are willing to pay a premium for it, but the nearest state- or USDA-inspected processing facility could be hours away and the wait list could be months along,” said Rep. Pingree in the press release. “That is just crazy and defeats the whole point of locally produced food.”

Producers of meat are required to use a USDA-inspected facility to sell meat, but there aren’t enough slaughterhouses to keep up with rising demand for locally-sourced meat. Smaller, independent USDA slaughterhouses are often booked for months in advance. As Bloomberg reported, in 1967 there were 9,627 livestock slaughterhouses. There were only 1,100 federally inspected livestock slaughterhouses in 2016. Bloomberg explains:

“A mass consolidation of the meat industry followed [the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act]. Today, commodity meat is dominated by large companies. Just four companies sell about 85 percent of America’s beef and the pork and chicken markets are similarly controlled by huge corporations.”

The bill faces stiff opposition from large meat companies and food safety groups. Big meat lobbying firm the North American Meat Institute and food safety consumer group Food & Water Watch both opposed the 2015 bill. Food & Water Watch is concerned that custom slaughterhouses that meet state regulations would not have inspectors on site at all times.

“Food safety standards should not be compromised for the convenience of a market segment,” Eric Mittenthal of the North American Meat Institute told NPR.

“Despite what these advocates want to believe, bacteria don’t distinguish between large and small facilities. To have the safest food system possible, the same food safety standards should be followed by everyone,” Mittenthal told Bloomberg.

The National Pork Producers Council also opposes the PRIME Act. “USDA’s FSIS or fully equivalent state inspection systems are essential partners, along with producers, packers, and processors, in delivering safe meat products that consumers can enjoy with confidence,” said the council on its website.

While those who oppose the bill are quick to suggest that other meat producers open their own federally-regulated slaughterhouses, the barrier to entry is very expensive. Jon McConaughy in Hopwell, NJ built an on on-site slaughterhouse for $350,000. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia built his own on-site slaughterhouse and processing plant for $7 million. And after the cost of building the facility, it takes several years to get USDA approval.

One group, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, actively supports the legislation. The organization works to defend small farmers and protect consumer access to raw milk and nutrient-dense foods.

“The local slaughterhouse infrastructure around the country has been decimated in the last 48 years. Passage of the PRIME Act will bring back the community abattoir and lead to a more prosperous local food system,” Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund told Reason.

11 other Republicans and 4 other Democrats signed on to the bill. Co-signers include House Liberty Caucus chairman Justin Amash (R-MI) and caucus members Raul Labrador (R-ID), Dave Brat (R-VA), Walter Jones (R-NC), Mark Meadows (NC-11), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Mark Sanford (R-SC).