Congress Considers Dueling Meat Bills To Meet Demand and Foster Food Resiliency
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
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