Amid Covid-19 bottleneck in meat industry, PRIME Act gains support

Closures at meatpacking plants due to outbreaks of Covid-19 have sent shockwaves through the livestock industry. With thousands of confirmed cases among plant workers and operations stuttering across the country, the backlog of animals awaiting slaughter is growing and farmers are running out of options. The bottleneck promises to have long-term consequences for American ranchers and is injecting new urgency into calls for relaxing federal regulations that limit small farmers’ access to livestock processing.

One such proposal, the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, or PRIME Act, has been kicking around Congress in several iterations since 2015 but has recently seen a surge of new attention among lawmakers. If enacted, it would lift a federal ban on the sale of meat butchered at small, custom slaughterhouses and create a much-needed alternative to factory-sized plants for farmers with meat that is ready for market.

Under current law, meat offered for retail sale — whether at a farmstand, farmers’ market, or grocery store — must be butchered under the supervision of a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employee or a state inspector with an equivalent certification. Only 27 states operate inspection programs that have FSIS equivalence, and given the limited number of federal inspectors, many parts of the country lack facilities that can process meat for retail.

Although custom-exempt slaughterhouses meet state health regulations, they do not have a USDA or state-equivalent inspector on hand to oversee the slaughter. They can butcher wild game for a hunter or process livestock for owners intending to feed their families, but the meat must be given back to the animal’s owner. The PRIME Act, which awaits a vote in the House Agriculture Committee, would allow parts of an animal butchered at a slaughterhouse that lacks USDA certification to be sold directly to consumers or wholesale to markets within the state.

“Centralized processing has become a bottleneck of its own — then you throw this pandemic into the mix,” said Nick Levendofsky, director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “We need to get back to having smaller processors spread out across the country so farmers can compete with the big guys.”

To the bill’s supporters, the pandemic has highlighted deep cracks in the nation’s food system — foremost among them is the tightening grip that a handful of large packing companies have on the American meat market. Beginning with the passage of the Wholesome Meat Act in 1967, federal inspection standards, the mounting costs of compliance, and tight margins have crippled small-scale processors. At that time, there were nearly 10,000 slaughterhouses in the U.S., according to a study by Auburn University. As of 2018, the USDA reported that only about 800 federally inspected livestock slaughter plants and 1,900 state-inspected or custom-exempt facilities remained.

Without the option of local, USDA-inspected butchers, some ranchers must drive livestock hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses that handle light orders and are often booked months in advance. It’s a familiar problem for small ranchers, and by bringing attention to an issue that has been simmering for decades, the pandemic might be a catalyst for change.

As of May 5, the USDA reported that nearly 200 FSIS inspectors were unavailable for work due to positive coronavirus tests and that another 120 employees were under self-quarantine. “We are now experiencing a strain on our food supply system like none we have seen before,” wrote Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, who sponsored the bill alongside Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on May 14. “The PRIME Act mitigates these ongoing barriers; at the same time, it addresses the very immediate need to get animals processed and to market, clearing the pipeline without farmers suffering the further demoralizing injury of euthanizing their animals while being unable to feed their neighbors.”

Since late April, when President Trump signed an executive order that allowed meat and poultry processors to remain open during the pandemic, support among federal lawmakers for the PRIME Act has more than doubled, to 46. The vast majority are Republicans from agricultural districts; so far, the bill has received support from eight Democrats and one Independent.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by trade groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council, which argues in its official position that easing inspection restrictions would threaten consumer and animal health.

At high volume and left unchecked, there would be good reason for safety concerns, said Bob Delmore, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, but “there aren’t thousands and thousands of these plants, so you wouldn’t think it could pick up substantially.” And custom slaughterhouses are still subject to USDA safety rules and inspection.

Small-farm advocates contend that opponents are more concerned with maintaining market dominance. But again, with limited processing capacity, custom shops are unlikely to make a significant dent in Big Meat — at least not overnight.

Passage of the PRIME Act may not have a drastic immediate impact, Delmore said, but over time it could help establish a new market within the food industry not unlike farmers’ markets have done over the past few decades. “It all depends on what the end consumer wants at the end of the day,” he said. “If the consumer wants to buy local, then people will produce to that market.”

In Wyoming, a new law slated to take effect in July may offer a proving ground. It will allow ranchers to sell shares of live cattle to customers, making them part owners of the animals before slaughter. Like the PRIME Act, it’s a workaround designed to give local ranchers a fighting chance on an uneven playing field.