From the November issue of Drovers CattleNetwork. 

Local food continues to be a growing segment and beef is part of that trend.

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of livestock producers reporting direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales increased by 1.2 percent, according to reporting by National Public Radio. This despite the fact that the number of livestock farms declined during the same time period by 18.6 percent. In 2012, U.S. livestock farms reported $648 million in DTC sales.

That number could well be even higher were it not for one major bottleneck for producers hoping to sell locally: slaughterhouse access. The lack of meat-processing options has become the single biggest hurdle between the farmer and the would-be customer.

Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, all meat slaughter and production for interstate commerce must be inspected by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service or by cooperative state inspection programs. There are a very few exceptions; meat may be processed at “custom” facilities that are not certified by the USDA, but the sale of that meat is restricted.

The number of small, USDA-inspected plants — meaning they process fewer than 10,000 head annually — declined by 12 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to the USDA.

But new legislative efforts are now underway to change federal meat inspection law and ease this bottleneck. Last July, Reps. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican and beef producer, and Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, introduced the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, which would give states the option of setting their own rules for processing meat that’s sold inside state borders. Congress took that power from the states and relegated it to the USDA in 1967.

More specifically, this bill would allow beef producers to get their meat processed at custom slaughterhouses that could be occasionally inspected by USDA — but they would not be required to have USDA meat inspectors overseeing operations every day. Beef producers could sell the meat processed in these plants commercially within their state lines.

Proponents among small beef producers are enthusiastic. Joel Salatin, a direct-sales farmer-entrepreneur and public speaker, wrote of the bill, “This is directly freeing for both farmers and non-farmers — it emancipates meat from the stranglehold of paranoid consumer advocacy groups, tyrannical bureaucrats and corporate protectionism.”

He continued, “It is specific in granting a freedom but respects states’ rights for implementation. More federal legislation should carry this balance.”

Meanwhile, opponents are speaking out as well. Some consumer advocates and meatpacker groups, especially, have expressed opposition, including Food & Water Watch and the North American Meat Institute.

To date, the PRIME Act has gathered 15 co-sponsors among representatives, and it has been sent to the House Agriculture Committee. If it should fail to pass during this legislative session, Massie already has a backup plan: He says he will introduce the bill as an amendment to the 2019 Farm Bill.