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.