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.