Food

Congress Considers Dueling Meat Bills To Meet Demand and Foster Food Resiliency

Three bills are on the table, but only one of them promises to unshackle small and independent ranchers.

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America's meat supply has been hammered by the COVID-19 outbreaks occurring at many of the nation's largest meat-processing plants. Pressure on the meat supply means consumer prices have spiked. The nation's small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers can help address shortages, but they first need better access both to small-scale slaughter and processing facilities and to local and regional markets. To address the crisis, while making the food system more resilient to shocks such as COVID-19, Congress must amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which needlessly restricts both interstate and intrastate meat sales. 

There are three different bills before Congress right now that could impact America's meat supply immediately and for years (and decades) to come: the PRIME Act, the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act ("New Markets Act"), and the RAMP-UP Act. One of those bills is great. Another is good. And one—the RAMP-UP Act—appears to be a big-business stalking horse.

Just what does each bill propose to do?

The New Markets Act—the good bill—would create and strengthen regional food systems by lifting a senseless ban on the interstate sale of state-inspected meat. Under current federal law, meat produced and inspected by state authorities in 20 U.S. states cannot be sold across state lines solely because those states use their own meat inspectors—rather than USDA employees—to enforce food-safety regulations. For example, that means meat from a rancher in Arizona that's inspected by Arizona state officials may be sold only in Arizona, even though the Arizona inspectors are enforcing rules that are equivalent to those enforced by USDA inspectors. That approach makes such little sense that even the USDA has said it embraces the aims of the New Markets Act.

What the New Markets Act doesn't address, though, is the overall capacity or supply shortfalls that have caused the present meat crisis. That's where the PRIME Act shines. PRIME is the great bill because it would create and strengthen local food systems by allowing the intrastate sale of uninspected meat and meat products. (The PRIME Act would also allow states to adapt or adopt their own inspection requirements for custom facilities.) For example, under the current law, cuts of meat from a rancher in Florida that's processed in what's known as a "custom" facility, which is subject to a host of federal and state regulations but does not have an on-site government inspector, cannot be sold to the public at all—not even at a local farmers' market. The PRIME Act would allow the rancher to sell that meat within the state of Florida directly to consumers and through local outlets, opening up new markets for small ranchers. And by allowing the local sale of meat from these operations, the PRIME Act would encourage the proliferation of small-scale processors, adding diversity, resilience, and badly needed additional capacity to our national processing system.

"Passage of this law would improve the fabric of America's meat landscape dramatically," I write of the PRIME Act in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

The RAMP-UP Act—the likely stalking horse for Big Agriculture—would authorize the USDA to provide six-figure grants to existing small and mid-sized processing facilities that their owners could use in pursuing USDA facility inspection. The process for obtaining that grant of USDA inspection—which can take years and is deeply flawed—would remain otherwise unchanged under the bill.

It gets worse. That's because, if the RAMP-UP Act were to succeed in its stated goal—to bring still more facilities under USDA inspection—it would require the agency to hire many more Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors. But FSIS has long suffered from inspector staffing shortages. So the USDA already can't hire enough inspectors to staff the nation's existing meat-processing plants, but the RAMP-UP Act says we should create an expensive new program that requires the agency to hire hundreds (or more) new FSIS inspectors! What could go wrong? And what exactly is the food-safety argument that supports this approach?

While the legislative sponsors of the bill may be well-intentioned, it's instructive to note that supporters of the RAMP-UP Act include a veritable who's who of the nation's biggest livestock producers and processors, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, lobbyists for pork producers, and others. 

Many of these same groups, including the same large processors that have had thousands of workers sickened with COVID-19, are also steadfast opponents of the PRIME Act. They've raised concerns about allowing uninspected meat on the intrastate market. But that's nothing more than fearmongering. Consider that a decades-old USDA exemption already allows many poultry farmers to slaughter thousands of their own chickens on their farms without continuous federal or state inspection and to sell those chickens to grocers and others. No cases of foodborne illness have been tied to this uninspected poultry. Zero. That's in sharp contrast to the nation's largest processors, a dozen of which each process over 1 million cows per year and which together account for more than half of all beef processed in USDA-inspected facilities. Despite continuous USDA inspection, there have been numerous recalls and foodborne illness cases tied to these massive operations. That's one reason the very premise of the RAMP-UP Act—to bring more state-inspected and custom processing facilities under the USDA's inspection regime, as if that's some sort of food-safety panacea—is deeply, fundamentally, and inherently flawed.

I've long supported the PRIME Act. The New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act is an eminently sensible bill. But the RAMP-UP Act won't change the rules of the game for farmers and ranchers and would have little or no immediate impact on the meat supply. That's why I fear the RAMP-UP Act, as I noted, is a stalking horse for large special interests that is intended to suppress competition, distract from the PRIME Act, and supplant actual reform.

"The RAMP-Up Act would do what Congress does best: spending money to help solve a problem that Congress created in the first place," says Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy fellow with the Heritage Foundation, in an email to me this week. "Legislators shouldn't be fooled by the RAMP-UP Act. It doesn't solve the underlying regulatory problems, and it doesn't even attempt to address the sale of custom slaughtered meat."

"Funding small slaughterhouses to try to help them meet regulations that are badly designed for their type of operation is like paying someone to help them roll a boulder up a mountain, instead of asking if they should be climbing that mountain in the first place," says Judith McGeary, a Texas rancher and attorney who leads the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance (and also serves with me on the board of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund). "The PRIME Act provides for scale-sensitive regulation of those slaughterhouses, which in turn helps both farmers who depend on them, and the consumers who want to buy locally raised meat from people they trust."

Dr. Michael Fisher, a retired FSIS staff officer, has been critical of what he sees as the agency's lack of strategic planning and leadership. Fisher tells me the RAMP-UP Act is a "nice idea," but says the bill would "not help custom and state inspected plants become USDA inspected because it does not remove the primary obstacle to obtaining a grant of inspection, which is the FSIS application process. You can give a custom and state inspected plant baskets full of money. They could build palatial palaces on the prairie. But if the FSIS District Manager does not want to issue a grant of inspection because doing so creates a human resources problem for the District Manager, FSIS can create administrative obstacles to the application process that results in the custom and state inspected plant giving up on the process and never obtaining a grant of inspection."

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D–Maine), an organic farmer, champion of many small farmers, and longtime sponsor of the PRIME Act who also co-sponsored the RAMP-UP Act, told me this week that the PRIME Act is an essential component of any necessary reform.

"I am committed to supporting small facilities and expanding processing options for our local producers," Pingree says. "These two bills provide different strategies to support that underlying goal and should be complementary, not mutually exclusive."

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that our food system needs significant reforms to ensure the nation's meat supply is safe, affordable, diversified, and available. The PRIME Act is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild and strengthen our local food systems. It would benefit consumers, small farmers and ranchers, processors, grocers, restaurants, and others in all 50 states. Whatever else Congress does, it must pass this bill right now.

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  1. Oh horsesh*t… If Arizona wants to sell their beef across state lines they can work a deal with said state or have said state inspect the meat. Throwing the federal government into ‘intrastate’ policy is exactly what we DON’T NEED!!!!!

    Abolish the UN-Constitutional USDA completely.. The Union of States was never given any authority in food policy within the states.

    1. This is actually the perfect example of ‘socialist government’ taking over a private industry. Where’s all the PRIVATE meat inspection firms??? Why aren’t states correlating by accepting meat inspection from these private inspectors?????

      The government MONOPOLIZED all inspection competition into their own industry and will dictate and set the price… This ISN’T freedom people.

      1. So instead of a government agency you would have an industry that owes its existence entirely to government regulations. I fail to see the difference in terms of freedom killing.

        1. Nice trick using the word ‘industry’ to pretend an entire industry is but a single company…. Why stop there; just pretend the entire ‘private industry’ is but a single company then pretend government is that single company…. Yep, that’s how the communists try to weasel communism into this country.

          … uh … because multiple companies (even if they are in the same industry) offer CHOICES whereas a single-agency with guns is forced monopolized dictatorship. …. dur …

          1. Competing for government money, right? Or do food manufacturers get forced by government to buy inspection services? What’s the difference?

            1. “Or do food manufacturers get forced by government to buy inspection services?”

              Is this a serious question?

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            2. No “Commie Money”.. It would probably be okay if State legislation determines if a basic ‘food inspection’ is to be required for marketable foods (of which various private inspection companies could preform at varying levels) but ideally food safety would be implemented only on the basis of negligent injury law.

    2. Let then eat cake

      1. But not interstate cake.

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  2. Instead of trying to figure out which of three new laws is better, just repeal the one existing law, and all associated agencies and regulations.

    What’s that? What do you mean “there are no campaign contributions in that approach”?

  3. We’ve known for months 3 factors are massively Inflating COVID’s fatality count. Trump needs to appoint a commission to find out the truth.

    https://www.redstate.com/michael_thau/2020/07/31/trump-needs-to-appoint-a-commission-to-determine-covids-real-death-toll/

    Please read that. The scum in the government/media complex are blatantly lying to all of us, and we deserve to know the truth of what’s really going on.

    1. So they shouldn’t count the guy that tested positive and then died in a traffic accident? Or the gut with the gunshot to the head?
      What are you, a cover up conspirator?

      1. Or go to the chart on the CDC site.
        The chart says at the bottom: “all deaths specific to COVID-19 patients”, not “all deaths from COVID-19”.

        https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america

        1. Then look at the second chart down, the daily deaths trend line.
          It peaked on April 16th and then declined steadily until June 28th, when it started trending up again.

          The George Floyd/BLM protests started on May 26th. 2 weeks to catch the disease, then 2 more weeks to die from it.

          No similar spike after Memorial Day, or the 4th of July, or any major state reopening.

  4. Nothing happens until it actually happens, but it looks like President Trump is forcing the sale of TikTok in the U.S. to Microsoft.

    NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China’s ByteDance has agreed to divest the U.S. operations of TikTok completely in a bid to save a deal with the White House, after President Donald Trump said on Friday he had decided to ban the popular short-video app, two people familiar with the matter said on Saturday.

    . . . .

    ByteDance was previously seeking to keep a minority stake in the U.S. business of TikTok, which the White House had rejected. Under the new proposed deal, ByteDance would exit completely and Microsoft Corp would take over TikTok in the United States, the sources said.

    —-Reuters, August 1, 2020

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-tiktok-bytedance-exclusive/exclusive-bytedance-offers-to-forgo-stake-in-tiktok-to-clinch-u-s-deal-sources-idUSKBN24X3SK

    1. At one point earlier this week, ByteDance was openly talking about moving their operations outside of China to placate both India and the Trump administration. TikTok was banned from the app stores in India in the aftermath of that altercation between India and China across their disputed border.

      If and when the sale of TikTok to Microsoft goes through, I doubt you’ll see much coverage–much like the absent coverage of the peace deal President Trump negotiated with the Taliban five months ago.

      Regardless of whether it should be popular for the president to force a foreign social media company to sell its U.S. operations to an American company, the fact is that protecting young Americans from the spying eyes of the dictatorial Chinese Communist Party should play well in an election year–and that’s why I wouldn’t expect to hear much about it in the mainstream press.

      1. The crucial issue of the ownership of TikTok will not make the pandemic go away.

    2. not exactly a win for freedom when a president can tell you who can own your company

      1. Nope, not from a libertarian capitalist perspective anyway.

        From a military perspective, I don’t know how serious the threat is of China using data from TikTok to perpetrate whatever evil. We probably wouldn’t have let the Russians do this during the Cold War.

        I think the calculations are mostly being driven by Trump’s reelection bid anyway. Since I posted that story, President Trump has come out against letting Microsoft buy their U.S. operations. That’s not necessarily good for America either. If there were a legitimate competitor to YouTube, that would be good for competition. President Trump seems to want the credit for destroying a social media platform in the United States–if forcing the sale to a U.S. company isn’t good enough. I guess that should tell us something about the popularity of social media companies in this country–if the president would rather have the credit for shutting one down than take the credit for forcing the sale to a U.S. company.

        Microsoft says they haven’t given up on the purchase yet, and there’s still a chance that the Trump administration could say that it’s okay. Microsoft also, apparently, promised to hire 10,000 workers in the U.S. if Trump approved the acquisition. Again, it’s kind of amazing if Trump would rather have TikTok’s scalp on his wall than take credit for forcing the sale to Microsoft, an American company. Maybe if Microsoft promised to hire those 10,000 workers in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin?

  5. I think I favor the New Markets Act because it doesn’t have a cutesy acronym.

    1. You seem to have a lot of influence with the spam bots.

      The boys wanna be her. The girls wanna be her.

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  6. I think I favor the New Markets Act because it doesn’t have a cutesy acronym.

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  7. I think I favor the New Markets Act because it doesn’t have a cutesy acronym.
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  8. Whatever else Congress does, it must pass this (PRIME Act) bill right now.
    So then it’s DOA?

  9. Ah yes, just what our economy needs after banning the 10% of its populace involved in food production from working: More central planning of the food industry.

    You heard it here first folks: Next comes the rationing, then the persecution of the “wreckers”, then the kulaks go against the wall.

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