Meat Shortages Show Need For Federal Slaughterhouse Reform

When the coronavirus began to ravage the nation’s slaughterhouses, beef and pork production plummeted by more than 30%, triggering meat shortages and barren store shelves. To prevent future shortages, Congress is currently considering the PRIME Act, a bill that would ease restrictions on local, small-scale slaughterhouses.

Ever since the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, beef, pork, and other meat can only be sold to the public after they have been processed at a slaughterhouse inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But since 1990, the number of federally-inspected slaughterhouses has plunged by 36%, with roughly 800 facilities left today. Consolidation is even worse than those numbers indicate. Almost 60% of the nation’s pork packing capacity comes from just 15 plants. For beef, just over 50 plants account for 98% of all cattle slaughtering and processing in the United States. 

Since many meatpacking plants are massive, densely crowded facilities, it’s unsurprising that such heavy concentration would be particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, 38,403 meatpacking workers from 382 meatpacking plants have had confirmed cases of Covid-19, which in turn has killed at least 171 meatpackers.

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Even before the pandemic, meatpacking facilities were a major supply-chain obstacle. As a result, ranchers often had to book appointments months in advance and travel for hours, even across state lines, to take advantage of one of the few slaughterhouses that fully complied with USDA rules. Now some farmers and ranchers are reporting delays as long as two years, which clearly hinders the nation’s food supply. 

But federal law does exempt a select number of non-commercial sales, including “personal, household, guest, and employee uses.” So instead of having to wait for a federally inspected slaughterhouse to become available, individuals who qualify under one of those exemptions can go to a smaller, and usually much closer, “custom” slaughterhouse to get their meat processed. 

Enter the PRIME Act. If enacted, the bill (S. 1620/H.R. 2859) would extend the current custom slaughterhouse exemptions to direct-to-consumer sales, as well as grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels, so long as the meat is sold within the same state as the custom slaughterhouse. Unlike federally inspected slaughterhouses, at custom slaughterhouses, inspectors are not required to be on-site during all processing. Given their dramatically lower capacity, custom slaughterhouses are still inspected but less frequently—usually once per year, akin to spot checks at restaurants. 

Custom slaughterhouses still have to comply with federal laws that regulate adulterated and misbranded meat products; those rules would remain untouched by the PRIME Act. Nor would it permit interstate sales. Though the bill wouldn’t solve all issues with capacity and consolidation, it would provide farmers and ranchers with more flexible options and greater opportunity to get their meat to market faster. Such a reform would also play a key role in fostering a more resilient (and more local) food supply. 

Introduced last year by Kentucky Republicans Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul, along with their Democratic and independent counterparts from Maine, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Angus King, the PRIME Act has more than doubled its number of cosponsors in both chambers since the pandemic hit. The PRIME Act has also won the support of hundreds of farms and ranches, and scores of nonprofits, including the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, and the Institute for Justice. Reflecting its bipartisan backing and newfound timeliness, the bill’s sponsors hope to include the measure in the next round of congressional Covid-19 relief. 

Opponents of the PRIME Act claim that liberalizing custom slaughterhouse sales could hypothetically endanger public health. Yet between 2012 and 2020, the USDA reported “no records of any foodborne illnesses resulting from meat processed at custom slaughterhouses,” according to a public records request obtained by the Alliance. Moreover, businesses do have a potent incentive to maintain safe and sanitary premises: After all, even the faintest whiff of potential contamination is often enough to deter consumers and cause meat sales to plummet. 

The PRIME Act is not the only federal remedy proposed to ease meatpacking bottlenecks. Several Members of Congress are backing the RAMP-UP Act, which would award grants of up to $100,000 so that owners could upgrade and retrofit their slaughterhouses in order to become federally inspected facilities. But those upgrades can cost upwards of $600,000 and take months, even years, of effort. 

In other words, even with a federal grant, butchers would still need to invest significant capital and would need to wait before they could even begin to recoup their costs. (Building a new slaughterhouse from scratch is even a bigger investment and can easily cost millions of dollars.)

Custom slaughterhouses, on the other hand, already exist and offer a much more immediate benefit to farmers and ranchers, provided Congress enacts a simple fix in federal law. Plus, unlike the RAMP UP Act, the PRIME Act wouldn’t spend taxpayer money subsidizing slaughterhouses. (If businesses need a subsidy to comply with a regulatory regime, that’s usually a good sign that those regulations are in desperate need of an overhaul.)

For too long, meat processing and packing have been a weak link in the nation’s supply chain. By enacting the PRIME Act, Congress can ensure that the meat industry won’t be past its prime.

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