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Free Minds & Free Markets

It's Time To Put Our Federal Meat Inspection Law Out To Pasture

Outdated regulations are hampering the beef meat industry.

Photo credit: Mike Grandmaison/NewscomPhoto credit: Mike Grandmaison/NewscomLast week, Sens. Mike Rounds (R-N.D.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Angus King (I-Maine) introduced a bill that would allow meat processed in many state-inspected slaughterhouses and other state-inspected facilities to be sold across state lines.

The sensible bill, dubbed the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act, could be a real boon to livestock farmers who want to sell their meat and meat products in neighboring states, and to the consumers who want their products.

Before you get your hopes up, though, consider that this under-the-radar, bipartisan bill has been around in some form or other for more than fifteen years. Then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) introduced similar legislation in 2000. Then-U.S. Representative (now Senator) Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sponsored a version of the bill in 2006. A year later, then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) introduced the bill.

Yet the ban on interstate sales persists. That's despite the fact it's got broad support.

"The New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act of 2018 will strengthen local economies by allowing meat and poultry products inspected under State meat inspection programs to be sold across state lines," said Kenny Graner, president of the United States Cattlemen's Association, earlier this month. "This opens access to new markets that were previously unavailable due to outdated federal regulations."

The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association also supports the bill. State agriculture departments have long been on board. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is, too. A 2001 study by the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, which attempted to identify differences between states that operate their own inspection regimes and those states that do not, noted the USDA "officially endorses legislation to permit interstate commerce for state-inspected meat."

So just what is the holdup? The status quo appears to be largely the result of a powerful, lousy law colliding with lazy lawmakers in Washington.

Since the late 1960s, as I've lamented several times here and in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, the USDA has required any animals and their meat that will be sold commercially to be slaughtered and processed in USDA-inspected facilities or in state facilities that are "at least equal to" the USDA facilities (a requirement known, artfully, as the "'equal to' requirement").

That requirement is part of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which applies both to interstate and intrastate sales. Practically, it means that if a local farmer wants to sell you (or a local restaurant) a pound of ground beef, he or she must have the beef processed in a facility that complies with the federal law.

The law, as it applies to wholly intrastate sales—as in the burger example—is unconstitutional. As I've noted before, by passing the Wholesome Meat Act, Congress delegated to the USDA a power Congress itself does not possess: to regulate wholly intrastate commerce.

On the other hand, as I noted in an op-ed in The Hill last week, Congress clearly has the power under the U.S. Constitution to regulate interstate commerce. But the fact a law is constitutional doesn't make it smart policy. For example, under the Wholesome Meat Act, a steak from a cow that was inspected in a state facility (operated in more than half of U.S. states) that follows regulations at least as stringent as those required under federal law in, say, South Dakota, can be sold anywhere in the state but can't be sold just across the border in Minnesota.

A program created under the 2008 Farm Bill, known as Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) Program, was supposed to alleviate the problem. But CIS has been unpopular for a variety of reasons.

First, it took years to implement. And once it was implemented, problems were immediately apparent. "The Cooperative Inspection Program is cumbersome, requires the entire state to apply to participate before individual plants that meet certain conditions can apply, and contains other provisions that appear to have dissuaded both states and plants from signing up," reads a 2013 article in the Vermont Law Review.

According to Sen. Rounds, the bill co-sponsor, only four states so far have embraced the CIS model.

"It really is past time to just say that people can sell anywhere in the country under state inspection," says Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, in an email to me this week. "[E]ither that, or stop requiring that state inspection be equal to federal. Either it is equal or it's not!"

Photo Credit: Mike Grandmaison/Newscom

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  • Longtobefree||

    or in state facilities that are "at least equal to" the USDA facilities

    Also know as "separate but equal"?

  • Flinch||

    The funny thing about meat is... the more it gets inspected, there is also added risks to the consumer, and the knee jerk reactions of years past to "step up" inspections following problems yielded little [statistically] that I can tell. So it's a wash: they catch a few more problems, but the longer waits to hit the deep freeze while receiving extra handling cause some too. In that vein, I prefer to grind my own hamburger at home as small batches from a single cut of meat assures no animal parts mixing in machines I never get to see cleaned at the grocers.
    As for the bulk of our laws... their framework was written back in the days of an ice wagon before antibiotics were discovered, and nobody ever heard of flash freezing. They need some updating, but not with this congress: they are too stupid.

  • ||

    Plus this Flinch, especially the grind your own policy :-). For the benefit of the general commentariat out there ....

    Grinding your own meat - beef or lamb - incurs a little overhead that totally outweighed by a) knowing what goes in and more importantly, b) controlling the fat content.

    Unless you have total confidence in your butcher a couple or three hundred dollars for a meat grinder is a worth investment. And you can make Sausages!!!

  • MollyGodiva||

    There is a second part of this plan. It is easier for companies to affect change to state rules then federal ones. Once the feds pass off inspection duties, the meat packers will neuter the state laws. This will then lead to a outbreaks of e-coli and salmonella. The consumers will get sick while the meat packers profit. Go read "The Jungle" and tell me how much you trust meat packers' good will to keep us safe.

  • Gleep Glop||

    How does infecting consumers lead to higher profits?

  • JFree||

    Creating sanitary conditions and using non-rotten ingredients in a production facility costs money. And once a customer is poisoned, it is damn difficult to trace the actual source of the poisoning back to the producer - esp when you eliminate the ability for govt to force producers to reveal their conditions. Because the 'incriminating evidence' is usually eaten.

    There is a fucking reason that govts everywhere got involved in regulating food safety once food production ceased to be local. It's one thing for a butcher to risk an angry customer delivering a shotgun blast to his face - and it doesn't really even matter if the customer is right/wrong about the poisoning. It's a very personal risk so the producer will forego some profit to make sure the risk isn't incurred. Entirely different for an industrial producer - located many miles away - who is beholden only to investors and looking to be low-cost producer. In that case, putting a lawyer on retainer is cheaper 'protection' - and caveat emptor to the customer.

  • Shirley Knott||

    We already have outbreaks of E. coli. Increasingly so.
    Maybe the"obvious solutions" we've been using for decades are wrong.

  • ||

    .... maybe it is assault e-coli not covered by current obvious solutions.

  • ||

    You do realize that "The Jungle" is fiction, don't you?

  • MichaeI Hihn||

    As was The Fountainhead.

    I want to write a comment here along the lines of 'por que no los dos?' except I get the feeling there aren't a great number of folks out there who know both books and saw each's beneficial points. I'm not sure how many would hear anything except disagreement with their book.

    I"ll give it a try.

    Both discuss anti-competitive markets. Some readers appear to think "the other book's" market stranglehold is a hyperbolic fantasy, except both books describe conditions that occur in real life, and are common, known features of markets with limited competition.

    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Sinclair was correct about this. That it doesn't seem to acknowledge this works as well for kindergarten teachers as factory supervisors does not negate this truth as applied to kindergarten teachers. Rand, for her part, seems to recognize the fallacy of bureaucratic hands on the market without desiring a land of no bureaucrats. Each was imperfect in their own way, and yet brought something real and vital to consider about markets and human interaction.

    I thought, anyway. Others feel different, I'm sure.

  • ||

    Michael, you do know that The Fountainhead was about intellectual property rights in architecture and countering the opinions of self-appointed saviours.?

  • MichaeI Hihn||

    Yes, I do.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    States tend to bicker and compete when it comes to interstate sales of products and services.

    This is exactly why the Constitution enumerates the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Congress is bad at many things and is usually bad at interstate commerce regulation too. Unfortunately once states start fighting, you need an arbiter which is Congress.

  • Rockabilly||

    I inspect my own meat.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Please share the results of your inspections.

  • Hank Phillips||

    When Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle," religious prohibitionists were hard at work on the "Pure" Food Law that would take effect and destroy the economy in 1907. Their idea was to stop Coca Cola and Dr Pepper from adding enjoyable plant leaf stimulants to soda pop, and stopping Sears and Montgomery ward from quietly slipping heroin into baby syrup and "cures for alcoholism" for sale in China. Sinclair's goal was to add the Communist Manifesto to the law of the land. Sure enough, after the Panic of 1907, the Prohibition Party supported adding Marx's own income tax to the Constitution. So yes, the combined work of mystical bigots and lay looters has completed to work of turning these States into a kleptocracy as pointed out in Friedman's "Free to Choose" has been accomplished and Sinclair's bureaucracy can be disbanded.

  • JFree||

    Their idea was to stop Coca Cola and Dr Pepper from adding enjoyable plant leaf stimulants to soda pop,

    That's just bullshit. The law merely required those 'patent medicine' companies to LABEL the presence of 'enjoyable plant leaf stimulants' (ie cocaine, morphine, alcohol, etc) in their concoctions. Those companies opposed it because they did not WANT customers to have that information on which to make their purchasing decisions.

    The only ingredients prohibited were actual poisons (eg arsenic, etc) - and those above labelled ingredients in foods/confectionaries/etc that were marketed to/for children. So yes - Sears and Monkey Ward could no longer sell a laudanum/alcohol mix as 'baby syrup'. Your opposition to that would be based on what? - that children are the property of their parents/guardians? that after a hard days work at the mill children deserve to sit back and enjoy the same opium/alcohol happy hour that adults did/do?

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    I just love that a law regarding meat sales is being sponsored by a guy named Angus King.

  • Star1988||

    I'm having trouble following this:

    "That requirement is part of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which applies both to interstate and intrastate sales. Practically, it means that if a local farmer wants to sell you (or a local restaurant) a pound of ground beef, he or she must have the beef processed in a facility that complies with the federal law."

    and:

    "For example, under the Wholesome Meat Act, a steak from a cow that was inspected in a state facility (operated in more than half of U.S. states) that follows regulations at least as stringent as those required under federal law in, say, South Dakota, can be sold anywhere in the state but can't be sold just across the border in Minnesota."

    Your first statement claims the law applies to interstate commerce as well, and your second statement say that it doesn't. Which is it?

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Where's the beef?

    It's in a USDA-inspected facility.

  • JFree||

    The biggest problem with federal regulation of 'meat' is that it had imposed the most hideously boring bureaucratic palate of meat-as-food in the world.

    Beef - chicken - pork. That's fucking it in most places. MAYBE a teeny section of lamb - or farmed bison. God how fucking boring.

    Where's the rabbit - elk- moose - quail - pheasant - partridge - duck - goose - goat - deer - squirrel - boar - ox - turtle

    The world is full of animals that I want to eat. And niche foods are also produced by niche producers not industrial scale which is a huge bonus.

  • Tony||

    If only we had a government interested in resolving such technocratic foibles instead of constantly playing The Shart of the Deal on Twitter.

  • Agammamon||

    Are you serious, are you serious?

    We're in this situation *because* of technocratic government foibles. And your answer is more government to fix what government has fucked up?

  • chorizo||

    It is not true that "Congress itself does not possess [power] to regulate wholly intrastate commerce." That is supposed to be true, based on the plain text of the commerce clause and its original meaning. But SCOTUS gets the last word, and twice they've held that purely intrastate activity was within Congress's reach. First it was under FDR's thumb in Wickard v. Filburn, but to his everlasting shame Scalia was swing vote upholding federal criminal law applied to possession of cannabis in California by CA resident who got it from another CA resident who grew the plants in CA from seeds acquired in CA using equipment, fertilizer etc. purchased in CA. And IIRC it was medical weed given to a patient at no charge, so there wasn't even "commerce" much less anything remotely close to interstate. Scalia voted with the liberals but with different reason. They said the CA activity affected interstate commerce because supply/demand changes in CA affect prices in other states. Scalia said some bullshit about the necessary and proper clause. Raich v Gonzales fucking horrible case

  • EscherEnigma||

    I think I missed a part.

    Repealing a federal law that prohibits interstate sales that don't meet some regulation doesn't mean that producers will be able to sell in all states. It means that states will set for themselves what regulations a producer has to meet before selling within that state.

    Or to put it another way, if Texas requires A, B, C, California requires B, C, D, and Utah requires A, D, E, if that Utah farmer wants to sell in both California and Texas, they have to meet ABCDE, not just their own state's ADE.

    This may be a "win" for federalism, but it's not a "win" for markets as it just replaced one standard for all states with 50 individual standards that individual producers are responsible for watching and verifying.

    Unless this "repeal" would say that any state's regulations are valid in every other state? That kicks Federalism in the balls and guarantees a "race to the bottom".

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