Wyoming's groundbreaking Food Freedom Act has served as a national model for how states can deregulate many in-state food sales. The five-year-old law opened up many previously illegal food transactions in Wyoming, and has delivered on its promise to benefit ranchers, other food entrepreneurs, and consumers alike. And it's done so without a single case of foodborne illness being tied to any foods sold under the law.
The law also keeps getting better. As I detailed a column just last month, an amendment to the Act will allow low-risk foods such as homemade jams to be sold in grocery stores and sold and consumed in restaurants.
That was great news. But yet another new amendment to the law, passed last month and set to take effect in July, could further bolster the fortunes of ranchers and consumers in the state.
A new animal share amendment will let consumers buy individual cuts of meat directly from ranchers though an animal-share agreement, completely outside of the typical U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection regime. That's something that's still illegal in the other 49 states. It's also why the Wyoming law could be a game changer for ranchers in the state and—should other states follow suit—a valuable new revenue stream for farmers and ranchers across the country.
The new amendment was introduced by Wyoming State Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R), who co-sponsored the bipartisan Food Freedom Act five years ago.
"The idea for the bill is simple," Lindholm—a rancher with whom I serve on the board of the nonprofit Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund—told me this week. "Let ranchers and farmers sell herd shares for their animals. That way the entire herd is 'owned' by all of the customers before slaughter, thereby meeting the exemption standards of the federal law, and now the rancher does not have to jump through the hoops of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and can utilize the smaller mom and pop butchers that still [exist] in most of our small towns."
The premise behind animal shares isn't new. For example, some states which prohibit raw (unpasteurized) milk sales allow distribution to people who've purchased shares in one or more of a farmer's dairy cattle. These "herdshare" agreements let a farmer raise and care for the herd-shared livestock in exchange for providing some of its (typically unpasteurized) milk to share owners.
Meat sharing has been a bit more complicated. As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, a consumer may buy a significant portion of a living cow—say one-quarter or one-half its post-slaughter weight—and take possession of its meat after it's been slaughtered in a non-USDA approved facility without running afoul of USDA rules. But that can mean buying more than 100-200 pounds of beef. Until the new Wyoming law, consumers who weren't quite that hungry (or who wanted only a particular cut of meat) have had little option but to buy from farmers who'd had their animals processed under the USDA's rules or to go to the grocery store for similarly inspected cuts.
The Wyoming amendment takes advantage of an exemption created under § 623(a) of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which governs interstate and even most intrastate livestock slaughter and meat sales in this country. The FMIA exemption allows custom slaughtering of livestock by and for an "owner" of the animal.
The Wyoming law clarifies who is or may be an owner of livestock in that state. It does so by defining an animal share as "an ownership interest in an animal or herd of animals created by a written contract between an informed end consumer and a farmer or rancher that includes a bill of sale to the consumer for an ownership interest in the animal or herd and a boarding provision under which the consumer boards the animal or herd with the farmer or rancher for care and processing and the consumer is entitled to receive a share of meat from the animal or herd."
Since the Food Freedom Act's passage five years ago, Lindholm has sought ways to improve the law. Meat sales were always at the top of the list.
"The sale of processed meat, except poultry, is not allowed under the Food Freedom Act," Lindholm explained to me in 2015. Even five years ago, though, he was already busy at work figuring out a fix.
"We have to find a workable solution to this issue and you can expect to see legislation in the future dealing with this issue so that ranchers and farmers can also sell beef and pork directly to consumers also," he told me. "This is just the beginning."
He meant it. Still, the new amendment has its limits. It still doesn't allow for the resale or donation of meat obtained under the law; for third-party retail or restaurant sales; or for sales taking place off of a farm or ranch. It also requires, among other things, that ownership shares be established prior to an animal's slaughter.
While it's difficult to ascertain right now who might be taking advantage of the law—given it doesn't kick in until July—Lindholm learned after the bill's passage of one such person. That would be his sister Bonita Carlson, who runs Persson Ranch near Gillette, Wyoming, with her husband Drew Persson.
Bonita told me this week that the law could be a game changer for ranchers and consumers in the state.
"It's caught quite a few people's attention in the state," she tells me. "It's pretty exciting news for sure. Even with social distancing, I've spoken with probably twenty people personally who are interested in using animal shares."
Carlson tells me the fact the Wyoming law lowers costly barriers to entry for ranchers like her—for example, she won't have to transport her animal-share cattle to an out-of-state feedlot—will help her high-quality grassfed beef compete on price with larger competitors.
"We will be selling 93% lean ground beef for much cheaper than they're selling 80/20 at the grocery store," Carlson tells me. "We should be competitive enough that a single mom can purchase ground beef from us, too."
More than five years after Wyoming passed the Food Freedom Act, the law has benefited farmers and ranchers, small entrepreneurs, and consumers throughout the state. And it just keeps getting better.