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

Outdated regulations are hampering the beef meat industry.

Written by Baylen Linniken. Originally published May 19, 2018, by Reason.com online magazine. Baylen Linnekin is a food lawyer, scholar, and adjunct law professor. He’s the author of Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island Press 2016). Linnekin serves on the board of directors of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

Last 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 “This opens access to new markets that were previously unavailable due to outdated federal regulations.”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!”

Raid in Minnesota – Food Police Protecting People from Themselves, Again

In the continuation of an eight-year government assault on freedom of food choice, officials from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), the Minneapolis Department of Health (MDH) and city police have shut down the physical location for the private buyers club, Uptown Locavore, embargoing thousands of dollars of nutrient-dense food in the process. The Locavore connects farmers and club members, enabling consumers to obtain foods they would not be able to purchase at a retail store.

On May 3rd MDA and MDH officials along with a police officer executed an administrative search warrant to inspect the property that served as a distribution point for the buyers club; the official’s visit turned into more than just an inspection. The officials embargoed every food product they came across, including the personal food items of Will Winter, longtime leader in the Twin Cities local food community and owner/manager of the locavore. The embargo notices MDH left at the location stated that the buyers club could not conduct business until “conditions set forth are met ad the embargo is lifted.”

City officials also posted an “Unlicensed Business” notice on the property stating that the Uptown Locavore is unlicensed and that “further operation of this business is a criminal act and subject to criminal complaint and/or arrest.” The ‘catch-22’ for the Uptown Locavore was that, if it did get licensed, it would not be able to provide many of the nutritious foods it currently makes available to club members.

Winter responded to the enforcement action by going to the media to get out his side of the story. He pointed out that the search warrant was given by a judge to merely determine whether the buyers club was operating an unlicensed business; nothing was mentioned in the warrant application about confiscating food or shutting down the Locavore. Winter explained to the media that his private club should not have to obtain a business license because it does not sell or distribute any food to the general public; his location is not open to the public but only to club members.

Winter remarked that all transactions were between consenting adults and were done between a farmer/artisan producer and informed consumers. He emphasized that there had been zero complaints about the Locavore. He commented that the government “instead of using their resources to pursue real criminals and real crime….waste their day trying to destroy people they don’t understand and then seem to hate….this unjustified persecution of people doing the right things makes me very unhappy to be American.”


The May 3 raid wasn’t the first time the food police had shut down a private food distribution facility established by Winter. In 2010 state and city officials raided and permanently shut down the Traditional Foods Warehouse in Minneapolis, a devastating loss for the local food community. The Traditional Foods Warehouse had rapidly become an institution in the Twin Cities; at one time it boasted 1,800 members. There has never really been anything like it anywhere in the U.S. before or since its demise.

2010 also was the year MDA stepped up its enforcement campaign against famers distributing to informed consumers nutrient-dense foods that the department claimed were “illegal”, targeting dairy farmer Mike Hartmann and poultry farmer Alvin Schlangen. MDA raided both farmers in 2010 and subsequently had both criminally prosecuted.

MDA went after Hartmann because it suspected dairy products the farmer produced were responsible for eight cases of foodborne illness in the Twin Cities area. The state’s initial testing indicated there was a match between the pathogenic bacteria responsible for the illnesses and bacteria found on the Hartmann farm but the Minnesota Department of Health did many subsequent tests to strengthen its assertion that Hartmann farm dairy products were the cause of the illness; there was no match in any of these tests.

Hartmann pled guilty to two charges of violating the Minnesota food and dairy code but only to stop MDA from criminally prosecuting his wife as well as a 68-year-old woman on disability who was helping his farm. The lowest point in MDA’s enforcement tactics came when two MDA officials, three plainclothes policemen and two Bloomfield city officials executed a search warrant at the private residence of Rae Lynn Sandvig whose driveway served as a dropsite for Hartmann. The policemen met Sandvig at her bedroom door shortly after 8 a.m. telling her to go downstairs to her kitchen. Policemen went into the bedroom of Sandvig’s children ordering them to do the same. When Sandvig arrived in her kitchen she found the two MDA officials and the two city employees peering into the family’s refrigerator; the family kept no foods from Hartmann’s farm in their refrigerator or freezer other than those for personal consumption. MDA considered prosecuting Sandvig but subsequently dropped her case.

MDA had prosecuted Schlangen twice for criminal violations of the state food and dairy code; in the prosecution putting his livelihood at stake, a jury acquitted him of all charges. Hartmann and Schlangen remain in business continuing to provide nutritious food to informed consumers.

Hartmann is suing MDA over an illegal search and seizure the department conducted on his delivery truck during a 2013 stop on a Minneapolis highway; the department confiscated dairy products and equipment during the raid.

For the past five years MDA has been investigating Dave Berglund, a dairy farmer in northern Minnesota who sells raw milk and other dairy products to his loyal customers on his farm in Grand Marais. Berglund concluded a long court battle against MDA last year, with the courts ruling that the department had jurisdiction to inspect his farm. Berglund is contending he has a right under the state and federal constitutions to sell a product like raw butter direct to consumers while the department is claiming those sales are illegal. MDA’s investigation of Berglund appears to be continuing.

The Minnesota state constitution has a provision allowing farmers to “sell and peddle the products of the farm” without licensing. The constitutional provision should include the distribution of farm products through a private buyers club like the Uptown Locavore that facilitates farmer-to-consumer commerce. Regardless of how MDA interprets the law, what it and other government agencies cannot escape is the fact that eights years of heavy handed enforcement hasn’t deterred consumers from seeking healthy food that the state declares is illegal. People continue to demand food from farmers like Hartmann, Schlangen and Berglund; they continue to join buyers clubs like Winter’s Uptown Locavore to have access to quality food they cannot find in retail stores.

Increasingly greater numbers of consumers want to opt out of the industrial food-vaccine-pharmaceutical drug paradigm. If these enforcement actions against real food are all about protecting the public health, here’s a challenge to the state and local government agencies in Minnesota who are harassing Winter: do a survey of Uptown Locavore members and then do a survey of other random people to determine what each group demands in terms of medical services (e.g., doctor visits, prescription drug use, etc.). Government officials would find that the buyers club members demand much less in the way of medical services, saving the taxpayers and insurance companies money. The state of Minnesota could be sending the savings on expanding farm-to-school programs but instead spends millions persecuting those who are making people healthier.


The government should be honoring Winter instead of dumping food confiscated at the Uptown Locavore into a landfill. It should recognize farmers like Berglund, Hartmann and Schlangen as frontline healers instead of trying to shut them down. This is about control and preserving industrial Ag’s market share by denying freedom of choice. MDA can recognize this freedom by exercising its enforcement discretion not to take action against people like Winter who are actually helping to make others well. One day there will be a court ruling affirming that there is a legal distinction between the public and private distribution of food. Until that time MDA and the other agencies can best protect and promote the public health by allowing people to obtain the food of their choice from the source of their choice regardless of whether that source is regulated by the government.

A good way to begin the departure from the failed policies of the past would be for the Minneapolis Health Department to lift the embargo on the food at the Uptown Locavore and allow the buyers club to resume operations. Unfortunately, Daniel Huff, an official for the department has indicated the city will seek a condemnation order to destroy the dairy products embargoed at the Locavore. Short of a legitimate accusation against the club of the food being responsible for foodborne illness, Winter and its members should have the right to be left alone.