As grilling season hits, could regulation rethink help with meat shortages?

When the “most hated man in Washington” suddenly gains 20 new co-sponsors for his bill, it must signal a pressing need. And among the countless problems created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps one of the most urgent has been the strain on America’s meat supply chain. 

With dozens of meat plants temporarily shut down, farmers across the country have had to euthanize tens of thousands of animals, and face the wrenching prospect of far larger culling. Meanwhile, U.S. weekly red meat production has dropped by as much as 34.9% compared with last year, causing prices to surge and grocery store shelves to lie empty.

The crisis has lately prompted nearly two dozen lawmakers to add their names to legislation put forward by Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, an MIT-educated Republican who owns 63 cattle and became persona non grata among his colleagues in the early weeks of the pandemic after he forced them all to come back to the nation’s capital for a key vote.

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Five years ago, he and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine first introduced the PRIME Act, designed to create more flexibility and resiliency in the meat supply system. The bill would allow smaller meat producers to utilize local butchers and sell their products directly to consumers, restaurants, and grocery stores, rather than getting funneled through USDA-inspected facilities and the handful of corporations that make up 80% of America’s meat market.

“What you’re seeing right now is not the result of an efficient capitalist system,” says Representative Massie, who faults U.S. regulations for creating a “monopoly” of big meat companies. He says removing some of the red tape will enable their competition to flourish, paving the way for shuttered or new local butchers to open and existing ones to expand to meet growing consumer demand for locally raised meat. 

The bill, which now has 42 co-sponsors from libertarians to progressives, is one of a growing number of alternative models to industrial meat production that have been gaining traction in recent years, driven by everything from animal welfare and “eat local” movements to constitutional concerns about federal overreach. Now, COVID-19’s intense strain on the supply chain is generating wider interest in rethinking the system. Representative Massie admits the bill’s chances at passing were slim five years ago, but says they have “increased exponentially” this month as consumers learn more about how the food supply pipeline works. “Because the people are now interested, the congressmen are getting interested,” he says. 

Still, it’s unclear how much such initiatives would alleviate the current bottlenecks, with many local butchers already booked into 2021 and freezer space largely maxed out. And while federal inspection is undoubtedly more burdensome for smaller producers and processors, it’s just one aspect of a larger equation involving economies of scale. Above all, America has spent years building a sterling reputation for meat safety among its trade partners – and some say it would be shortsighted to undermine in any way the federal oversight on which that trust is founded. 

“Am I in favor of less red tape that would add flexibility to the supply chain? Yes,” says Glynn Tonsor, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He says the PRIME Act would help, but cautions, “It’s not a magic bullet.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s run-in with rotten beef

If the U.S. Army hadn’t served rotten beef to Teddy Roosevelt when he was a colonel in the Spanish-American War, perhaps he wouldn’t have pressed as hard for Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act during his presidency.

The rotten beef scandal precipitated a series of hearings on meat safety, federal inspection practices (or lack thereof), and unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants, further exposed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.”

Sinclair, who sought to spark a socialist movement in support of plant workers, instead galvanized public demands for increased government regulation to ensure meat safety. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” 

Roosevelt, after sending investigators to the packinghouses to verify Sinclair’s depiction, used the ensuing report to push the stalled Meat Inspection Act through Congress in 1906.

Under that law, all meat sold across state lines must be processed in a USDA-inspected facility, where an inspector is on hand at all times to examine livestock, ensure humane slaughtering practices, and observe the processing of meat. Meat for sale within a state can be processed at a state-inspected facility, provided its standards are at least as stringent as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s. Currently, the only exemption to that inspection regime is for owners of livestock who get meat processed at custom processors for their own consumption, or to share with family, employees, and nonpaying guests.

With a limited number of USDA-inspected facilities, smaller producers often have to drive their livestock hundreds of miles to get their meat processed, adding substantially to the cost and running the risk that their product could be mingled with industrially produced meat.

This spring, Wyoming passed a pioneering law that would allow ranchers to sell meat to their neighbors – while the cattle are still alive. By buying shares in a herd, customers would be considered “owners” at the time of slaughter and thus allowed to consume the meat without inspection by the USDA.

“I don’t think [the USDA is] this nefarious organization plotting in the deep state or trying to prevent grandmothers from buying T-bone steaks from their next-door neighbors,” says state Rep. Tyler Lindholm, who spearheaded the bill. But, he adds, citing the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, “What authority do you have to tell Wyoming citizens that [they] can’t sell steak to each other?”

The PRIME Act, short for Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption, seeks to go one step further than Wyoming’s law by giving states the option of permitting custom-slaughtered meat to be sold not only to individual consumers but also to restaurants, grocery stores, and other outlets within their borders.

Introduced in May 2019 for the third time in four years, the bill has yet to move forward. In a May 14 letter, Representative Pingree urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take up the bill in response to the current processing and supply shortages.

“I am not advocating for relaxing the standards that the USDA has set,” wrote the Maine congresswoman, an organic farmer who raises vegetables, pigs, and chickens. “I am simply asking that we address the needs of communities in a way that supports them both economically and morally during this unprecedented time, by allowing America’s family farms to do what they do best – feed their neighbors.”

Still, many in the meat industry caution against such a move.

Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says the association opposes the PRIME Act because of how it could undermine years of investment in making USDA-inspected meat the “gold standard” around the globe. “If there is a food safety issue that breaks out … that’s not going to be the problem of Johnny’s local [meat] locker; that’s a beef industry problem,” he says.

Founding Fathers vs. the WTO

A central aspect of the debate is about who is responsible for ensuring safety. Advocates of less regulation say that greater transparency in packaging, such as where meat was raised and processed, could give consumers the opportunity to make informed decisions about the food they’re purchasing, rather than depending solely on the government.

“Our founders never intended government to be so ingrained in our life that it became … the preserver of safety,” says Ben Adams, a Marine running for the Idaho state legislature as a Republican, who has been in touch with state Representative Lindholm about using Wyoming’s new law as a model for his state.

Critics of federal regulations also call into question aspects of USDA inspection they see as excessive – such as a requirement that all USDA inspectors be furnished with an office and a bathroom for their exclusive use. Many also see the current rules as arbitrary.

“Right now, I could step out on my deck and butcher 1,000 chickens on my deck … and I could sell those directly to consumers without any inspection, labeling, or licensing. But I can’t sell one T-bone steak,” says state Representative Lindholm in Wyoming. “It’s not actually about safety anymore; it’s about protecting a monopoly.”

Others say only the federal government is in a position to guarantee consistency of standards and comprehensive oversight, both of which are key for trade relationships.

Darci Vetter, who grew up eating uninspected meat on her family farm in Nebraska and served as chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. trade representative under President Barack Obama, says it’s vital not to put exports at risk. As of 2017, the United States exported nearly 13% of the beef and 27% of the pork it produced, with market development activities in more than 80 countries.

“From a former trade negotiator perspective, what we don’t want is for a major destination for U.S. meat to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, … How do I know if the rules are actually being followed?’” says Ms. Vetter, now the vice chair for food and agriculture at Edelman North America.

The 2003 outbreak of BSE (popularly referred to as mad cow disease) in the U.S. prompted nearly all international markets to stop accepting American beef, incurring losses of $16 billion over a decade. “It’s 17 years later, and we can still feel the effects from those markets being closed to us. You can understand the hesitation,” she says.

In addition, the World Trade Organization prohibits member nations from creating preferential markets for domestic products. If local producers are seen as gaining an advantage over foreign exporters of meat to the U.S., such as being exempted from the cost of USDA inspection, that could run afoul of WTO rules.

Some cattlemen say the system is stacked against them. But Trent Loos, a sixth-generation farmer in Nebraska and radio show host with a wide following out West, says that while deep-pocketed corporations have a greater ability to hire lobbyists, he doesn’t buy the idea that American cattlemen are disadvantaged.

“I just think we’re not loud enough. I think we gotta get louder,” says Mr. Loos, before meeting with a Nebraska state senator interested in Wyoming’s model. 

The Walden Meat model

Even under the current USDA inspection regime, some local meat markets are finding ways to thrive. Walden Meat, which delivers locally raised meat to customers across New England and New York, has seen a tenfold increase in the rate of new customer sign-ups over the past couple of months.

They co-own and operate a regional slaughterhouse in Vermont, and everything they sell is USDA-inspected, which CEO Charley Cummings says lends their product a certain credibility.

“We really value the USDA as a partner in that regard, and see them as playing a really important role in establishing universal standards,” he says. “We have not found it overly constraining to the viability of a farm-to-consumer business.” He notes, however, that such a model wouldn’t be workable in a less densely populated area like Wyoming.

Mr. Cummings says Walden Meat, which aims to price its products at 10% to 15% less than Whole Foods, delivers 55 cents to farmers and butchers per dollar of meat sold, compared with 10 to 11 cents in the commodity world.

“We’re all for everything that delivers more dollars to farmers’ pockets,” he says. “What this crisis has laid bare is that we have prioritized efficiency in meat production above all else – animal welfare, environment, farmers, processors, and employees in every step of that value chain.”

As customers have increasingly sought local meat, whether out of animal welfare concerns or nutritional considerations, they have found creative ways to work within the USDA law – such as going in with a friend on a pig or a cow before it’s slaughtered, and then splitting the meat. Wyoming’s state Representative Lindholm has made that somewhat easier with his herd share law, which allows an unlimited number of people to “own” the animal.

But Representative Massie says such workarounds are cumbersome. Plus, he says, the USDA exemption is regressive; not everyone has $1,000 or the necessary freezer space. He argues there’s an untapped potential for local producers to make a far greater contribution, and bring local meat within the reach of average Americans.

“You’re forcing people that should be able to engage in legitimate commerce to come up with these crazy constructs to do it,” he says. “You shouldn’t feel like you’re exploiting a loophole to sell your neighbor a hamburger.”

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