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PRIME Act Would Help Put the 'Local' Back in Local Meat Production

States could set their own rules for meat that's processed and sold within their own borders.

SteakBsenicLocally raised meats might soon also be regularly slaughtered and sold locally, under a bipartisan bill now winding its way through Congress. The PRIME Act, first introduced two years ago, would allow each state to set its own rules for slaughtering cattle, pigs, and most other livestock and processing their meat, so long as that meat is sold only within the state's borders.

States have been prohibited from setting their own inspection rules since Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act 50 years ago. Under current law, meat processed via "custom slaughter"—at independent slaughter facilities not subject to USDA rules—may not be sold commercially.

Consolidation in the wake of the law has resulted in fewer and fewer slaughter facilities, a problem I detail at length in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. That's meant fewer choices for small farmers and consumers alike.

The paucity of slaughter facilities in this country is truly startling. For example, a new USDA slaughter facility recently opened in Wyoming, making it the only such facility in a state that boasts 1.3 million head of cattle.

This lack of slaughter facilities at a time of rising demand for grassfed beef—typically produced by small farmers—is a huge problem.

The Wholesome Meat Act was intended to improve food safety. At a signing ceremony for the law, Pres. Lyndon Johnson said the bill would put "shady processors" out of business.

"[O]ne filthy plant is one too many," Johnson proclaimed. But neither the Wholesome Meat Act nor USDA inspection has been any sort of panacea.

For example, in a lengthy piece last month for the New Food Economy, I describe how the USDA's inspection regime is effectively broken. In the piece, I detail how a 2014 recall of nearly 9 million pounds of meat illustrates how a chain of USDA "actions were careless, secretive, and incompetent from the start, and likely played a role in the need for a recall."

Criticism of the Wholesome Meat Act is nothing new. In fact, opposition to the law was immediate.

"The new legislation provides for US government takeover if states do not meet US government set standards, whether based on sound public health reasoning or not," wrote Oscar Sussman, a New Jersey doctor of veterinary medicine, in a 1968 letter to the editors of the American Journal of Public Health, which had published an editorial in support of the new law. (emphasis in original)

"The new Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 sets an unwarranted precedent of federal takeover, under the guise of public health need, of functions normally required of state government," Sussman wrote. "The establishment of this precedent can and will lead to future unnecessary extension of big federal bureaucracies in other areas."

The unholy precedent of which Sussman speaks—not new at the time but, rather, traceable at least to the Supreme Court's wrongheaded decision in Wickard v. Filburn twenty-five years earlier—is Congress's delegation to the USDA of an authority Congress itself does not possess: the ability to regulate wholly intrastate commerce.

"It is hereby found that all articles and animals which are regulated under this Act are either in interstate or foreign commerce or substantially affect such commerce," the Act's findings declare. (Readers interested in what exactly "substantially affect" means might enjoy (or not) the three-part test discussed here.)

Two key PRIME Act sponsors told me this week why they've put their weight behind the bill.

"The PRIME Act will maintain high quality standards while easing burdens on producers, which means lower costs for consumers and greater opportunity to support local farmers," Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) tells me.

"A lack of available processors is something I hear about from farmers in my District constantly," says Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). "The PRIME Act would change burdensome federal regulations to make it easier to process meat locally, which would help farmers scale up and give local consumers what they want."

But critics, particularly large producers, have been quick to pounce on the bill.

The National Pork Producers Council, which represents the nation's largest pork producers, is "vehemently opposed to the PRIME Act." The group says it opposes the bill in part because it could harm consumer confidence in the nation's food supply.

But many supporters, including small producers, are equally inclined to tout the consumer benefits of the bill.

There's no question in my mind that the federal government has the authority to regulate interstate commerce in meat (or anything else for that matter). I'm equally confident states possess plenary power to regulate commerce in meat within their own borders. Returning that power to the states would prove a boon to small farmers, grocers, restaurants, and consumers alike.

Photo Credit: Bsenic

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  • Jerryskids||

    Oh I'm sure it's locavores driving this thing and not some religious group whose prophet demands obedience to Allah's will that animals be slaughtered in a certain way.

  • Agammamon||

    Considering that a lot of the interstate slaughter houses are already kosher/halal certified - probably not.

  • Ragoftag||

    Being a Christian, I object to having to support Rabbis and Imams who aren't fit to work. it isn't a religious thing, it is an added religious 'tax' the meat industry inflicts upon us. If the meat industry wants to have a separate supply system for Kosher/Halal, go for it. The FDA 'protects us from all manner of evil 'foreign' foods (French cheeses, Portuguese hams) to our poverty of cuisine. Heck, some of the best vodkas are not allowed to be sold in the US!
    Support your local butcher and help save the small farmers. Actually, I do to get better deals.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Animals? I always thought those translated verses referred to infidels.

  • Rich||

    The paucity of slaughter facilities in this country is truly startling.

    No wonder the plethora of food deserts.

  • pan fried wylie||

    it's a plucky prose pandemic.

  • gordo53||

    With few exceptions, anything that moves laws and regulations from the federal government and gives them back to the states is a good thing.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Anything that moves the defense of individual rights back to the states might be good. But States have voting blocks eager to enforce fugitive slave acts, coathanger abortion laws, prohibition of herbs and spices, of stock exchange jewry and myriad other forms of collectivised initiation of deadly force by law. Those the 1st, 2nd and 14th Amendments do not protect.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The Pure Food Law of 1906 was a response to Chinese boycotts prompted by products containing hidden morphine. It was avidly seized on by mystical prohibitionists and socialists alike as "The Jungle" pressed the case for nationalizing the Beef Trust (and everything else). That the very idea of some local autonomy to preserve rights has become mentionable is a sign that coercive economic collectivism is losing its lustre. While the iron is hot and the GO-Pee platform nostalgically mentions protection against incoming fusion bombs, this may be a good time to prompt The Several States to build their own Strategic Defense antimissiles under the Second Amendment and the Article I provision for "such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay."

  • Devastator||

    I'll have some of whatever he's smoking.

  • Rebel Scum||

    Wholesome Meat

    Something something nickname in college.

    Also, I'd like the gov't off my meat and out of my kitchen.

  • cravinbob||

    Name one member of Congress that is an expert in any field of endeavor... I will wait... no I won't. I assure you there are no actual cattle ranchers or farmers or anyone in Congress other than politicians. Those who need to justify their very existence by jacking up a jacked up system even more- they are either too stupid to understand that or so smart as to understand yet continue to do it. Either way it is insanity. Bought and paid for...
    The very reason they need so much security in Washington DC by (which again makes the mind spin) obviously the worst security people in the universe since they do not know they are protecting the most useless humans in existence.
    A single occurrence of e.coli in food should be enough for anyone to say: Get government out of the business of keeping me safe already. I just want to be safe from them. Paying farmers and ranchers not to do too much of what they do is not the brainchild of genius. It is a bastard and it makes life a bitch.
    To write what I just wrote made my head hurt. Now I need drugs.

  • AlmightyJB||

    They're all experts at making everything they touch worse. It's an incredible talent.

  • Devastator||

    Because before regulations on meat quality the processes were so wholesome and e. coli free.

  • Nicholas Conrad||

    If you think it doesn't make sense to ship meat out of Wyoming for processing, try Alaska. We have one fda approved slaughter house, and when we tried to support local farmers by buying locally produced meat I chipped a tooth on bones in the ground beef. I told the guy, and he was super apologetic and very upset, he said this place ruins his meat often, but he doesn't have any choice.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "There's no question in my mind that the federal government has the authority to regulate interstate commerce in meat (or anything else for that matter)."

    They've abused the Commerce cClause

  • AlmightyJB||

    They've abused the Commerce Clause to the point of a joke. I can understand something like the UCC to help facilitate interstate trade. I don't think the USDA nor the FDA need exist. Especially today where consumer information is readily available from many different sources.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Also, worst president? FDR or LBJ?

  • The Last American Hero||

    FDR.

  • Ankah||

    They should exist (my opinion), they need to be toned down.

    Dependency on available consumer information, is a dicey proposition, because of entire manufacturing/production processes being owned by the same company.

  • JFree||

    Well I have no doubt that the next article will be something along the lines of:

    State X is engaging in protectionism by having different processes for abbatoirs than state Y - which is harming BigForeignMeatCo - and therefore free trade demands that these protectionist barriers be eliminated.

    Or something catchier.

  • some-yahoo||

    Several years ago, I read an interesting book titled, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front, by Joel Salatin.

    According to Amazon's description of Joel's book, "Drawing upon 40 years' experience as an ecological farmer and marketer, Joel Salatin explains with humor and passion why Americans do not have the freedom to choose the food they purchase and eat. From child labor regulations to food inspection, bureaucrats provide themselves sole discretion over what food is..."

    Federal agencies like the USDA and the FDA stifle economic growth and deprive us of some simple basic freedoms. It's time to relegate these agencies to the scrap heap of failed government, and I can think of several other federal agency acronyms to add.

  • aaCharley||

    Federal government has abused the commerce clause for at least 75 years.
    There is a case concerning farm crop production quotas from the Roosevelt era. Price controls implemented with maximum production allowances for a farm. Farmer was sued because he produced grain over his allotment and used it entirely to feed his own livestock. Of course the Feds won.

    The lack of slaughter facilities really is a problem. The livestock must be shipped several hundred miles to slaughter and then the processed meat must be transported back for sale. Shipping live cattle is pretty expensive and results in a lower quality animal at slaughter. You don't have to be a PETA supporter to recognize that stress from shipping results in a lower quality consumer product as well as loss of animals in transit

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