Food

Meat Bills Are on the Menu in Congress

America's meat supply has been hammered by COVID-19 outbreaks at many of the nation's largest meat processing plants, but Congress can solve this by reducing onerous regulations.

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America's meat supply has been hammered by COVID-19 outbreaks at many of the nation's largest meat processing plants, and consumer meat prices have spiked as a result. The nation's small- and mid-sized farms and ranches could help address these issues if ranchers and farmers had better access to small-scale slaughtering and processing facilities and to local and regional markets. But to get those things, they first need Congress to get off its rump and vote.

Three very different meat processing reform bills are now before Congress. One is great. One is good. And one is suspect. Just what does each bill propose to do?

The New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act—the good bill—would foster 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 authorities in 20 states cannot be sold elsewhere solely because those states use their own inspectors, rather than U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees, to enforce food-safety regulations. That approach makes so little sense that even the USDA has said it embraces the aims of the bill.

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 great bill—the PRIME Act—shines. That bill would create and strengthen local food systems by allowing the intrastate sale of uninspected meat and meat products.

Under current law, cuts of meat from a ranch that uses what's known as a "custom" facility—subject to a host of federal and state regulations but without an on-site government inspector—cannot be sold to the public at all. The PRIME Act would allow such ranchers to sell that meat within their home states directly to consumers and through local grocers, butchers, and restaurants. 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. (The bill would also allow states to adapt or adopt their own inspection requirements for custom facilities.)

Now the more dubious option: The RAMP-UP Act would authorize the USDA to provide five- and six-figure grants to existing small- and mid-sized processing facilities, which owners could use to pursue USDA facility inspection. The process for obtaining USDA meat inspection—which can take years and is deeply flawed—would remain unchanged under the bill.

What's more, if the RAMP-UP Act were to succeed at 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. That's a fool's errand, given that FSIS has long suffered from inspector staffing shortages.

Many supporters of the RAMP-UP Act (including many of the large processors that have had thousands of workers sickened by COVID-19) are also steadfast opponents of the PRIME Act. They cite concerns about allowing uninspected meat on the intrastate market, but that's fearmongering. A 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. Zero cases of foodborne illness have been tied to this uninspected poultry. That's in sharp contrast to the nation's largest processors, which have faced numerous meat recalls and foodborne illness cases.

The PRIME Act is solid legislation, and the New Markets 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. It may, in fact, be little more than a stalking horse for large agricultural firms and other special interests that's intended to suppress competition and supplant actual reform.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that significant changes are required to ensure the nation's meat supply is safe, affordable, diversified, and available. We shouldn't wait another day to rebuild and strengthen our local food systems.

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  1. Meh. Eating animals will soon be banned. And then we will see the push for animal voting rights. And reparations.

    1. So a subsidy for Beyond Meat?

      1. Why do you hate plants?

        1. Because they taste awful.

          Vegetables aren’t food, vegetables are what food eats.

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  2. For those needing a backronym fix:
    PRIME: Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act
    RAMP-UP: Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants Act
    The Senate isn’t even trying with the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act. They need to learn from the House. For those keeping score the primary sponsors are PRIME (Massie R-KY), RAMP-UP (Peterson D-MN), NMSIMP (Rounds R-SD).

    1. I kind of like the first bill because it doesn’t even try to torture its name into some sort of cutesy acronym.

      1. It reminds me of the days when the names of military operations were not descriptive.

        1. The operations weren’t, but they sure do love their acronyms.

    2. NMSIMP must be referring to our governor.

    3. Carnivore Health Omnibus Inspection and Covid Elimination Act. (CHOICE Act)

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  4. They must be staffing the meat processing plants with the elderly because no one else gets sick. They should use children instead.

    1. Not enough meat on their bones.

    2. Ruining your narrative?

  5. Slightly OT: can anyone cite data or analysis that shows how COVID infections relate to activities or conditions in meat processing plants? Yes, some outbreaks correlate with people employed in plants, but many of those people also correlate with other behavioral factors, like crowded multi-generational households, social gatherings, cold climate (back in early Spring), etc.

    1. It is likely they this was just indicative of the infection rate in the general public it is just they were testing everyone when elsewhere you could get tested only if you had symptoms. If they could not stop Corona /Wuhan from spreading in a meat packing plant the rest of us had no chance. They are one step lower than an operating room at the hospital as far as infection control.

      1. Yep. It’s like asking why do college football teams keep having outbreaks. Because they’re testing asymptotic people multiple times per week.

    2. The plant we use seems to require the employees to wear full protective gear all the time. That includes gloves, masks, eye protection, rubber boots, and plastic aprons.
      Plus, they are always wiping surfaces down.
      It is not the same as full biohazard protection and decontamination, but it seems to me an unlikely place to transmit disease.

      1. Regardless, any search regarding wuflu transmission says contact it pretty much irrelevant.

  6. Does the New Markets act allow individual States to opt out? That would short-circuit much of the scare-mongering.

  7. If we should be directed from Washington when to grill and when to broil, we should soon want for meat.

  8. Onerous regulations? Here I thought not dying from listeria was a good thing.

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  10. Libertarians should oppose all legislation that provides funds or tax breaks to meat processors. The should also oppose government inspections of meat production.

    There are private sector inspectors working for halal and kosher inspection services that provide certification and assurance over meat slaughter and butchering.

    The non-religious population could easily adopt those models to develop more robust inspection services than government can provide, at a much lower cost.

    If taxes are necessary to run a few vital services, fine. But it’s asinine for government to use our money to pick and choose businesses to succeed, by selectively funding them or providing tax breaks the rest of us have to pay.

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