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.

NEXT: The Coronavirus Butterfly Effect

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  1. I get that Massie proposed this bill long before the pandemic hit, but I question the sincerity of people who only sign on to issues like this after crises make it obvious how counterproductive the status quo is.

    1. Yeah, at the same time I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. If we can use people’s inclination to have panicky “DO SOMETHING” responses to advance liberty, I’m all for it.

      I’d like to think that these people would learn from this and perhaps evaluate whether all this regulation was ever necessary in the first place, but I’m not holding my breath.

      1. Yeah, I value the integrity of my brain cells too much to hold my breath. Out of curiosity, who the hell is Fat Mike?

        1. Fat Mike is the lead singer and bassist for the punk rock band NOFX. He’s well known for his drug use, his habit of cross dressing and his obsession with fat lesbians.

          The More You Know.

          1. fwiw i did know those things.

    2. Who cares about their sincerity? If it fixes a problem then do it and don’t whine about it. I need my grilled burgers goddammit.

  2. Dairy farms forced to dump milk.

  3. i guess if the world has to end in order for Congress to deign it okay to buy meat from people who sell meat … wtf

    1. Do-nothing jobs at the USDA are one of the only gigs still running right now and you want them out of work? What kind of monster are you?

      1. every seven minutes on tv Dominos tells me they’re hiring

        1. Yeah but pizza delivery drivers are useful, you can see how the out-of-work USDA guys might not be qualified.

  4. The FDA is a bloated institution in need of massive reform.

    1. It needs to be eliminated entirely and rebuilt from the ground up, with the requirement that the replacement agency not be allowed to hire anyone from the old FDA who held a job title above janitor. The agency culture is rotten to the core.

      1. What is it with you people “tear it all down!” . Yeah, no thanks, I’d like my beef to be at least slightly inspected by someone rather than Jim Bob saying “looks bout right to me” after he drags the side of beef that’s been in the sun for a couple hours in the back of his old ford pickup.

  5. There is a loophole. Many ranchers will sell you “a quarter of beef”. Basically you are purchasing a share of that animal. The rancher raises it and has it processed and you get the meat. It is classified as personal use and you “own” the animal so it gets around inspection requirements. You generally do have to foot part of the processing fee and depending on the rancher you may be buying it on a live weight rather than a dressed weight basis.

    1. On average figure dressed weight at around 60% of live weight.

    2. Yeah I’ve done that before. Didn’t realize it was a loophole though. Always just did it through a friend or family member; hey you want a piece of this cow I’m buying type of deal. Can they expand that loophole; I am thinking like how in DC you can buy a $60.00 orange and get a “gift” bag of weed with each purchase?

      1. It is a loophole in that the regulations were meant to cover personal livestock you raised yourself, but because anyone can buy an animal, and there is no law requiring to actually raise the animal you buy, you can still take advantage of this without actually raising the animal.

  6. What happens if the customer ends up wanting only 50 pounds of the dressed meat?

    1. It depends on the producer and what they are willing to work with you on. You could also find others who want to and go in on it as a group.

      1. I have a friend who wants me to go in with him on one but i don’t have room for that big of a freezer and neither do a lot of people. What they need is like what my grandparents used to do they would rent freezer space at the butcher. I don’t know if anyone does that anymore.

        1. Some around here still do. But it is rare. Another solution would be to rent a storage unit with electricity and out a freezer in it. Living rural as I do, and ranching and hunting and fishing as I do, I’ve had a large chest freezer for a long time.

    2. The solutions are there.
      But it takes a little more effort than you going to a store.
      This is the problem.
      People who do not put forth the effort to resist this supply chain of convenience end up becoming part of a system that has made things the way they are now.
      If I have an 800lb hanging weight to sell, your 50 pounds will not get rid of all the meat for me, the producer.
      Plus I am a cow calf producer. I do not finish beef. My place and location are not conducive to that.

  7. As if states were less regulating than the federal government, some might be but California won’t be less regulatory

    1. Many larger dairies, packing houses, egg processors etc do regulate by California rules because it is the largest consumer market and the most regulated. If you were able to purchase locally you wouldn’t have to deal with this added cost. Federalism.

  8. I prefer we repeal the ‘Wholesome Food Act’ in these times. And sell meats locally! There’s no reason to shut down and let all that food go to waste! Simply re-work the production lines. Do the distance dance. Whatever it takes, but keep that beef in production!

    1. I agree it should be repealed. Let people buy from each other honestly.
      And the hucksters will be outed.
      Bcs the act makes no one safe. You make you safe.
      Do not buy from someone you do not trust.

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  10. I am a cattle producer.
    If I have a steer to butcher, I do not need to take it to a place where a USDA inspector is employed or at (at least in most states I know of).
    You simply buy a quarter a half etc. of the animal. I take the animal as the producer to the butcher.
    They process it. You pay ME for the value of the portion of the animal you will be taking, and you pay the butcher separately for the processing fee.
    For those of you who only want ONE steak or a few pounds of hamburger etc., you are the reason the current supply chain exists.
    USDA inspectors do not make you safe.
    NO one makes you safe but YOU.
    To become a butcher with a USDA inspector costs too much. It is not worth the hassle.
    If I want to sell my hamburger in individual packages in a store, I have to take my animal to a USDA inspector butcher. Where I live in eastern Oregon, that is almost 200 miles away. The local butcher in John Day does not have a USDA inspector.
    Why? COST. Regulatory nightmare pain in the arse.
    It is simply not worth it for them to do this.
    If you simply quit going to a grocery store and went instead, to a local farmer or rancher, this could happen. And in many places it does.
    The issue is this: Urbanites are so far removed from their food supply they further distance themselves from it bcs of convenience.
    Bcs you wish to go to a store and buy your meat daily, or is such small portions that it isn’t possible to service you any other way, you help create a conglomerate supply chain like we have no.
    This is why CAFOs were created. To service the urbanites.
    And now, sine there are maybe 2% of us out here making your food, urbanites and others take it for granted we even exist.
    And so you vote for things and support things that destroy us.
    And now you wonder why there are problems for you getting food?

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