Federal Red Tape Is Keeping Local Meat Processors From Helping Fix Our Supply Problem

A renewed push to pass the PRIME Act picks up steam as COVID-19 leaves us all asking “Where’s the beef?”


The increasing possibility of a breakdown in the meat supply chain in the United States due to COVID-19 is prompting Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) to renew his push for a bill that would make it easier for small, independent slaughterhouses and meat processors to sell directly to consumers.

Large meatpacking plants across the country have shut down due to fears of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers, and less and less meat is making it to grocers and restaurants. Wendy's has run out of beef for hundreds of its restaurants (leading to many Twitter jokes about its most famous commercial).

Reason's Brian Doherty has documented how the broad shutdown of commerce is harming the world's food supply, and it's likely going to get worse. Reason food policy writer Baylen Linnekin noted on Saturday that the federal government already does not have a great track record in regulating the food industry in a way that makes it easy to stay in business. We shouldn't assume the government is going to do a good job at helping businesses reopen.

But what Massie has been proposing is legislation that reduces some of this massive red tape to make like easier for smaller slaughterhouses and meat processors to work within their own states, thereby increasing the number of businesses able to provide us with our hamburgers, bacon, and pork chops.

The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, a.k.a. the PRIME Act, would exempt smaller specialty slaughterhouses from having to comply with the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) guidelines in order for their meat to be sold to consumers and businesses within the state. They would, instead, be bound by state regulations for meat processing and sales. So while a slaughterhouse in Colorado wouldn't be able to process meat for sale in California unless it follows USDA guidelines, it would be able to sell meat to nearby towns.

The PRIME Act dates back to 2015. Long before the pandemic forced big meat processing plants to shut down, America had a massive shortage of slaughterhouses that could sell to consumers. When Linnekin wrote about the PRIME Act in 2017, Wyoming had just opened one (in a state with more than 1 million heads of cattle).

This is all due to a law passed 50 years ago called the Wholesome Food Act that prohibits slaughterhouses from selling meat directly to the public unless they follow all of the USDA's rules. People who own their own livestock can bring them to slaughterhouses for their own consumption, but that's not a feasible solution for most people.

This extensive red tape has made it impossible for smaller meat processing facilities to help deal with the supply breakdown, even in their own states and communities.

Massie didn't respond to requests from Reason for comment by publication time, but he's active on Twitter promoting the PRIME Act as a solution to the meat problem:

The latest version of the bill was reintroduced in May 2019 and has picked up 13 new cosponsors since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. The 35 total cosponsors are mostly Republican, but there are some Democrats in the mix from agriculture-heavy states like California and Florida.

This is yet another example of how overly rigid federal regulations have hindered our ability to adjust on the fly to a difficult crisis.