Access to slaughterhouses has been poor for small livestock producers in most of the country for many years now but has become considerably worse since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. USDA-inspected slaughterhouses have since last spring been booking customers as far out as 2022. Many custom slaughterhouses are now booking well into 2021.
Demand for locally raised meat is only going to increase. At a recent food safety conference, a high ranking official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the department was working to have low-dose ionizing radiation, known as irradiation, to be considered as a “processing aid”a which means there would be no labeling requirement to inform consumers that meat or poultry they were purchasing had been irradiated.
One possible answer for the slaughterhouse logjam is the personal use exemption codified in federal regulation at 9 CFR 303(a)(1). The regulation states:
The requirements of the [Federal Meat Inspection] Act and the regulations in this subchapter for the inspection of the preparation of products do not apply to:
(1) The slaughtering by any individual of livestock of his own raising and the preparation by him and transportation and commerce of the carcasses, parts thereof, meat and meat food products of such livestock exclusively for use by him and members of his household and his non-paying guests and employees.
On May 24, 2018, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published a guidance document titled, “FSIS Guidelines for Determining Whether a Livestock Slaughter or Processing Firm Is Exempt from the Inspection Requirements of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.” In the guidance, FSIS explains what those under various exemptions from inspection, including the personal use exemption, can legally do. FSIS’s interpretation of the guidance provides a way for farmers to sell live meat animals while being under the personal use rather than the custom slaughter exemption.
The guidance states that under the personal use exemption,
A person may purchase livestock from a farm or ranch and then slaughter it onsite using the farm or ranch facilities or equipment. a. If a person purchases livestock, and uses the on-site facilities without assistance from the seller, then the activity remains personal use.
b. If the seller participates in the slaughter or processing activity, then the facility owner is subject to the custom [slaughter] exempt criteria….
The document goes on to state, ”the owners of the livestock may or may not reside at the same physical location as the animal”, establishing that there can be more than one owner under the personal use exemption. FSIS does not say how many owners there can be under the exemption, but it has stated that there can be unlimited owners under the custom slaughter exemption. FSIS has stated that all owners must obtain some portion of the custom animal but has not required that there be a specific minimum amount.
The only other requirements listed in the guidance for the personal use exemption have to do with adulteration. FSIS requires:
“No livestock are slaughtered which are unfit for human consumption.”
“Specified risk materials (SRMs) are inedible and prohibited for use as human food.”
“The carcasses and parts are not prepared, packed or held, under insanitary conditions.”
There are many more requirements for the custom slaughter and custom processing exemption than there are for the personal use exemption including requirements for the physical facility, water, labeling, recordkeeping, and ingredients used in the preparation of meat products. There are also state licensing requirements for custom facilities; usually there is no licensing requirement for a farmer operating under the personal use exemption.
Most, if not all, states have adopted the personal use exemption as part of their law, few of those states have imposed additional requirements beyond what the Feds’ mandate.
There is no limit on the number of livestock that an owner may slaughter and process for their personal use. Livestock slaughtered and processed under this exemption can be shipped across state lines. For the farmer shut out at inspected and custom slaughterhouses, it’s possible to sell live animals under the personal use exemption if one of the owners is experienced at meat processing, whether that individual is another farmer or someone specializing in the trade.
aProcessing aids: Ingredients that are present in a meat or poultry product in an insignificant amount and that have no functional or technical effects in the finished meat or poultry product are considered to be processing aids. Processing aids are not required to be listed in the ingredients statement for a meat or poultry product. [FSIS, “Compliance Guide on the Determination of Processing Aids”, PDF, April 8, 2008; weblink]
If anyone needed evidence on the importance of passing the PRIME Act (H.R.2859 / S.1620), the bill enables states to pass laws allowing the sale of meat from an animal slaughtered and processed at a custom facility), the logjam at slaughterhouses around the U.S. should provide it. Federally inspected slaughterhouses, state-inspected slaughterhouses, and custom facilities around the country are stretched beyond capacity. With the COVID-19 crisis triggering a shift in demand from industrial to locally produced meat and the concerns about food security leading to increased stocking, the market demand for local meat has never been greater. Compounding the strain on slaughterhouses is the demand from livestock farmers that previously sold to the major meat packers until they lost that business in the shutdown or slowdown of the country‘s biggest processing plants.
There are USDA slaughterhouses around the country now booking into 2022; many custom houses are taking reservations for well into 2021. It is not uncommon for livestock producers who were able to get a slaughter date two or three months out are now having to book eight months or more in advance. More farmers are considering whether to construct a custom facility on their own land. Under federal law, which states are required to follow, farmers can slaughter animals they have raised without regulation as long as the meat from the slaughter only goes to the farmer’s family, non-paying guests and employees. If anyone else obtains meat from an on-farm slaughtered animal, the farmer must comply with federal regulations governing custom slaughter and processing.
A number of states have taken steps during COVID-19 to increase the meat supply. In May, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce issued an emergency regulation lifting the restriction on the number of owners there could be for a custom processed animal.1 Prior to the emergency rule (which will be converted into a permanent rule sometime this summer), there was a limit of four owners per custom animal; now a farmer can distribute beef direct to the consumer without limitation on the number of individual owners. Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson said Mississippi residents wanting to buy local beef or pork “can buy a share in that animal whatever the farmer wants to sell” or however he wants to divide it up.2 The new rule is in line with USDA’s position that federal regulations do not set a limit on the number of owners there can be for a custom animal.
On April 28, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) announced that it had “invited ten qualifying custom exempt slaughter establishments in Utah” to come under state inspection which would allow the sale of meat from animals processed at those facilities in intrastate commerce. A UDAF press release stated that “if all the [invited] custom exempt plants take part in this emergency program it could increase Utah’s processing capacity by at least 10 percent.”3
USDA has a cooperative interstate shipments program (CIS) which allows meat from approved state-inspected slaughter and/or processing facilities—with no more than 25 employees—to be shipped in interstate commerce if the plant is located in a state that FSIS has approved to participate in a state meat inspection program. At the present time, FSIS has only approved seven of the 27 states with their own meat inspection programs to be part of the CIS.
In May, Maine and Wisconsin, two states participating in the CIS program, each sent waiver requests to FSIS asking that the Feds allow meat from all state-inspected plants to be shipped in interstate commerce.
In a May 7 letter to FSIS, Commissioner Amanda Bill of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (MDACF) said, “Given the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we ask that FSIS grant a temporary waiver to allow all state-inspected meat to be sold in interstate commerce or to be donated to food banks that require federally inspected products. This temporary waiver would lift usual restrictions on place of sale and allow for more processing and marketing opportunities for Maine producers and consumers during the unprecedented crisis. USDA processing facilities in Maine are under immense pressure to meet demand and are reportedly booked out over a year in advance in some locations. Allowing state-inspected meat to temporarily cross state lines will greatly support regional marketing opportunities, smooth out bottlenecks in the local food chain, reduce the need to cull healthy livestock and poultry, and support those who are food insecure during this extremely difficult time.”4
In his letter to FSIS, interim secretary Randy Romanski of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) also asked USDA to grant a temporary exception to allow state-inspected meat to be sold or donated across state lines. Romanski stated, “Our agricultural development staff have been working tirelessly to identify state-inspected Main Street meat processors who may be willing to slaughter and process even an extra dozen animals a week. Our state meat inspectors stand ready to provide additional slaughter inspection days as necessary. We feel that new partnerships between farmers, processors and consumers or food donation programs are vitally important in responding to this pandemic.”5
Oregon, earlier this month, passed a bill authorizing the start up of a state meat inspection program. North Carolina and Minnesota have both recently had bills introduced that would provide financial help to improve slaughterhouse infrastructure and capacity.
There is currently legislation before Congress, Senate Bill 1720 (S.1710) that would allow the sale of state inspected meat and poultry in interstate commerce. S.1720 is legislation that needs to pass with its potential to increase the supply of meat available to consumers that is outside the meat packers’ monopoly, but the bill won’t have the impact on improvising the slaughterhouse infrastructure in the U. S. that the PRIME Act would.
Custom slaughter and processing facilities are less expensive to construct then federal and state-inspected plants; they are also considerably less expensive to operate, with the custom facilities not having requirements such as HACCP plans. Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), the lead sponsor of the PRIME Act, has said that he has been contacted by a number of people who owned buildings that were once slaughter facilities. They have told Massie that if the PRIME Act passes into law, they could have their slaughter plants up and running in five weeks. Many of those individuals would not be interested in operating a facility again if an on-site inspector had to be present–a requirement for state and federally inspected facilities but not for custom, Only a custom facility from which meat could be sold by the cut will get them back into business. The PRIME Act will increase the number of slaughterhouses more than S.1720. Currently, 27 states have their own meat inspection program; all states except South Carolina allow the operation of custom facilities. It has been many years since FSIS has approved the start up of a state meat inspection program.
The notion has been planted in the public mind that meat can’t be produced safely without an inspector being present for slaughtering and processing, but the truth is otherwise. Custom slaughtered and processed meat has an excellent track record for food safety. USDA recalls over 20 million pounds of meat in a typical year, little or none of that comes from custom facilities. It isn’t uncommon for hundreds of people to become ill from meat processed at the large USDA-inspected processing plants; few cases of foodborne illness have been blamed on meat processed at a custom house. Where is there a better quality control, an inspected plant slaughtering 300 to 400 cattle an hour or a custom facility slaughtering a few beeves a day? Fifty such plants account for nearly 98% of the meat production in this country according to a story posted by The New York Times referencing beef analyst Cassandra Fish.6
The PRIME Act has over 50 sponsors in the House; the support is there to pass the bill. The biggest weakness in the local food system is the lack of community slaughterhouses. The existing custom houses can’t keep up with the demand. Passage of the PRIME Act is the best way to get additional slaughterhouses online now.
How You Can Make a Difference
Please call your U.S. Representative and Senators asking them to cosponsor the PRIME Act. For more information on the PRIME Act see the previous post and view the latest WAPF action alert posted at www.westonaprice.org under “Get Involved”.
You can look up your two U.S. Senators by selecting your state at www,senate.gov in the “Find Your Senator” field near the top of the webpage and your U.S. Representative by entering your zip code at www.house.gov again at the top of the webpage; you may also call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121
“Due to issues related to the COVID-19 emergency and the impact the spread of the disease has had on the meat supply chain, the Department issues this temporary rule in an effort to increase meat availability to consumers. The temporary rule will increase the number of people that can own an animal (cattle, sheep, swine, and goats) from four to multiple owners for the purposes of the custom slaughter exemption of the meat inspection laws. The regulation will be effective for 120 days from May 7, 2020 through September 3, 2020.”
“After decades of consolidation, there are about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, processing billions of pounds of meat for food stores each year. But a relatively small number of them account for the vast majority of production. In the cattle industry, a little more than 50 plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of slaughtering and processing in the United States, according to Cassandra Fish, a beef analyst.”