1967 Wholesome Meat Act: Disaster for Small Slaughterhouses

Passage of the PRIME Act [H.R. 5859 / S. 1620] would give states the power to legalize the sale of custom processed meat in intrastate commerce (i.e., meat from an animal slaughtered and processed at a facility where an inspector is not required to be present to observe the slaughtering and conduct an ante mortem and post mortem inspection of the animal).

Currently, federal law prohibits the sale of custom processed meat; the prohibition went into effect with the passage of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967. The Act mandated that meat could not be sold unless it was slaughtered and processed at a facility that was either federally inspected or one inspected in a state whose meat inspection laws were at least as strict as the federal requirements; meat slaughtered and processed at a state facility could only be sold within the state.

The Wholesome Meat Act has done tremendous damage to local slaughterhouse infrastructure around the country. In 1967 there were nearly 10,000 slaughterhouses in the country1; today there are less than 3,000.2*

The bottleneck caused by the lack of slaughterhouses has frustrated small livestock operations in getting their products to market and has led to an inability to meet the overall demand for locally produced meat. The 1967 Act has been one of the worst laws ever passed for local food; what’s more, it was known from the beginning that the Act would have the effect it did.

On September 16, 1971, the Small Business Administration (SBA) presented a paper to the United States Senate Select Committee on Small Business titled: “The Effects of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 upon Small Business – A Study of One Industry’s Economic Problems Resulting from Environmental-Consumer Legislation Prepared by the Small Business Administration.”3

The SBA paper3 discusses the cost of compliance (mainly, the costs of facility upgrades) with the requirements of the Act and the effects it could have on small-scale slaughterhouses and processing plants. The paper includes the following comments:

  • “[I]t could be argued that the Wholesome Meat Act was as much of a disaster for many small meat firms as a hurricane….” [p. 32]

  • During the Congressional deliberations in 1967 over the Wholesome Meat Act, there was little discussion of the effects that the Wholesome Meat Act would have upon those 15,000 or so firms who now would be subject to rigorous inspection of their product. [p.31]

  • Emphasis was upon “consumerism”, the American housewife and her family. And this was “consumerism” in a rather narrow sense. There was little or no consideration given to the costs, particularly in the first few years, that would have to be borne by the meat industries in order to comply with the Wholesome Meat Act. “…[I]t was likely that meat prices would increase for several years, because of the Act. Scant attention was paid to this highly important problem during the Congressional consideration of the Wholesome Meat Act.” [p. 31]

  • Nor was much attention paid to the potential effects of the new law upon competition within the meat industries. “[T]he meat industries are among the more competitive in the American economy. But the Wholesome Meat Act could lead to a significant diminution of competition. How many firms would have to shut down because they could no longer compete due to the new law? … Would the Wholesome Act lead, however unwittingly, to an undesirable increase in concentration in the meat industries? Questions such as these, highly fundamental questions, were barely raised during the legislative process.” [p. 31]

  • The SBA report notes that following passage of the Wholesome Meat Act, legislation was introduced in Congress that would have allowed SBA disaster loans for slaughterhouses attempting to become compliant with the Act if the slaughterhouse’s financial need could not be met “by private financial institutions or by regular Government credit programs.”  As recorded in the report, “the SBA disaster fund ‘is based upon the legal principle that the emergency is created by the act of the sovereign U.S. Government which is beyond the control of the individual business. This may cause major losses to the businessman, particularly if the company is forced out of business. The sovereign act is thus similar to a natural disaster…’” [p.33]

  • “We find that the small business concerns affected by the Act need a substantial amount of financial assistance in effecting compliance with the Wholesome Meat Act. The establishments not in conformance with the Wholesome Meat Act say they need $278.6 million to make the improvements needed to conform to the law. Of this amount, the establishments surveyed say $132.2 million is unavailable. In addition, fully one-third of the establishments not in conformance with the Act report that financing is unavailable…. We find that the amount that may be forthcoming from private financial institutions is seriously deficient.” [p.84]

  • “The Wholesome Meat Act only directly affects strictly intrastate producers whose production at the most is 20-25 percent of the total national products of meat. Of this intrastate group, slightly less than half are not in conformance with the Wholesome Meat Act and probably about one-third or so of the group not in conformance will go out of business if some form of Federal loan program is not developed for their benefit.” [p. 86]

  • “The authors think the empirical evidence contained in this report points inevitably to the conclusion that many firms will suffer substantial economic injury without Federal assistance. In fact, many face terminal economic injury without some form of Government relief.” [p.87]

Much of what the SBA report questioned about the Wholesome Meat Act has come to pass. The Act did contribute significantly to the consolidation of the meat industry; today four companies control over 80% of beef processing in the U.S. and four companies control over 60% of pork processing.4

The inability to comply with costly federal requirements has led to thousands of slaughter and processing facilities going out of business; many of these were small facilities processing only for commerce within the state. These facilities might have been accountable for only 20-25 percent of national meat products but they gave the small livestock farmer much better access to slaughterhouses at a better price than is the case today. The local abattoirs that dotted the country are mostly gone. Passage of the PRIME Act can begin the process of bringing them back.

The Wholesome Meat Act has not led to the production of safer meat today; there are more recalls than ever for positive pathogen tests in meat products. The 1967 Act has also contributed to higher meat prices as the writers of the SBA report predicted; the higher costs with expanded federal regulation have been passed on to the consumer. The Wholesome Meat Act has failed small-scale slaughterhouses, family farms, consumers and communities on numerous levels.

It’s time to start the process of rolling it back by passing the PRIME Act. Call you representative and ask that they sign on as a cosponsor of HR 2859 / S 1620.

ACTION ALERT 5/6/2020 – Help pass the PRIME Act – Call today!

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REFERENCES
1 Denny, R.C.H. (2012). Between the Farm and the Farmer’s Market: Slaughterhouses, Regulations, and Alternative Food Networks (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Auburn University AUETD database, https://etd.auburn.edu/handle/10415/3247*

2 United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Livestock Slaughter 2019 Summary. April 2020. p. 62. Posted at http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/lsan0415.pdf [View PDF – http://bit.ly/1i6sxS9]

3 United States. Small Business Administration, and United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Small Business. The Effects of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 Upon Small Business: A Study of One Industry’s Economic Problems Resulting from Environmental-Consumer Legislation. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1971.

4 Heffernan, W. & Hendrickson, M. (2007). Concentration of agricultural markets. University of Missouri, Department of Rural Sociology. Posted online at http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/07contable.pdf [View PDF – http://bit.ly/1JZuqGf

Reprinted by permission of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund from article originally posted September 10, 2015, titled “The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967: Disaster for Small Slaughterhouses from the Start“. Republished here with minor edits.

The Wholesome Meat Act Hustle

inspecting the meat and work

This month the Maine Legislature held an emergency session, a move partly due to a threat from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to shut down Maine’s state meat inspection program. In June Governor Paul LePage signed into law Legislative Drawer (LD) 725, “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems”. LD 725 establishes the power of local governments to devise their own regulations governing direct transactions between a local food producer and consumer; the bill gave the locality the power to allow the unregulated unlicensed sale of food direct from producer to consumer within its boundaries including the sale of meat from an animal slaughtered and processed on the farm. The USDA warned that, unless the state meat and poultry inspection program is governed by laws at least as strict as federal requirements, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will take over inspection of Maine establishments where livestock or poultry is slaughtered and/or processed. On October 24 the legislature passed an amended version of LD 725 which affirmed that state laws on slaughter and processing will be at least as strict as federal requirements.

The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 (WMA) prohibits the sale of uninspected meat in intrastate or interstate commerce, with the Act requiring that an inspector must be present when slaughter takes place. The WMA extended USDA’s jurisdiction over meat and poultry slaughter and processing to intrastate commerce and only allows uninspected meat to go to the owner(s) of the slaughtered animals. Prior to the passage of WMA, farmers slaughtering on-farm were exempt from inspection as long as they sold direct to consumers; these sales could take place in interstate commerce, as well as intrastate.

Arguably, the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 along with state mandatory pasteurization laws have done more to damage the rural economy and empty the countryside of sustainable family farms than any other developments in the past 50 years. Legislators, in passing the two measures, addressed what they perceived to be unsanitary conditions in the meat and dairy sectors. Unlike raw milk, where thousands of illnesses were attributed to milk produced at urban swill dairies, during Congress’ deliberation of the WMA testimony and evidence from proponents provided few, if any, cases of illness caused by the consumption of uninspected meat whether slaughtered on the farm or at a custom slaughterhouse facility.

What is currently happening in Maine presents an opportunity to make the public aware of how the supporters of WMA hustled Congress into passing the Act by looking at comments made shortly after the Act became law. What the passage of the WMA has led to has been the creation of a monopoly in the meat industry, a loss of consumer choice, a decline in the ability of small sustainable farms to meet demand, and a deterioration in food safety and quality.

In 1971 the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Small Business released a report titled, “The Effects of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 upon Small Business.” The report contains the following quotation:

In our judgment it is well to recall the key events leading to the enactment of the Wholesome Meat Act. Many in the meat industries are still bitter about what took place in 1967…. The general attitude was that the industry had been unfairly maligned, that the excesses of the few had damaged the reputations of them all and that the cost of compliance had been high, excessively high. There was contempt for the consumer groups, particularly certain of the “crusaders”–most notably Betty Furness (Presidential Assistant for Consumer Affairs) and Ralph Nader. The Furnesses and Naders had “stampeded” both the White House and the Congress, particularly the latter; the National Legislature had, in effect, been sold a “bill of goods” and the consequence of the law would be that many would be driven out of business by the government. There can be no gainsaying the fact that there is great resentment on the part of the many in the meat industry over the whole episode. And, many fear Uncle Sam is driving them out of business for misguided reasons.1

The concerns of the Senate report have come to pass; in 1967 there were nearly 10,000 slaughterhouses; as of January 1, 2017, there were 2,732. Many of the slaughterhouses shutting down were community slaughterhouses which provided access to slaughtering and processing for small livestock farmers. As the community slaughterhouses went out of business, many livestock farmers did as well. Today, there are livestock farmers who have to make reservations to get their animals slaughtered at an inspected facility a year in advance due to the shortage of slaughterhouses in their area.

Months after the WMA became law the weekly newspaper, the National Observer, published its own findings about the passage of the WMA. The May 20, 1968, edition of the paper stated the following:

Agents of the Federal Government fanned out across the nation last July under urgent and explicit instructions from Washington to gather examples of horrid conditions in meat-processing plants not under U.S. Government control. Swiftly and often with calculated deception, the Federal men got what they were ordered to get. These findings, which were widely accepted as factual and unbiased Government inspection reports, painted a picture of widespread filth in meat handling. These reports were later to be used as undisputed authority for scare stories that frightened the public and helped stampede Congress into passage of a new and tougher Federal meat-inspection law–the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967.

What can be confirmed is the nasty fact that the “evidence” gathered last July was deliberately biased, that the tainted reports were used to mislead Congress and the public, that they put a lie in the mouth of President Johnson, duped a large number of well-meaning people, including Ralph Nader and Betty Furness and did a superb con job on much of the nation’s press….

The stench of the filthy-meat survey began sweeping out belatedly early this year when state and industry officials challenged the authority of some of the inspectors’ findings. An investigation by this newspaper revealed that U.S. inspectors had, indeed, fudged on some facts…and that other reports were doctored in Washington to make them sound even more damning than they were.2

The WMA has not improved food safety. There have been numerous foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to consumption of inspected meat in recent years and the number of recalls of meat products has increased substantially from what it once was. FSIS inspectors have the thankless task of trying to maintain quality control in USDA plants that slaughter 300-400 cattle per hour. These large slaughterhouses have come about as a result of the consolidation of the meat industry; currently, only four companies control over 80% of the beef processing in this country; four companies control over 60% of pork processing.

The antidote to the disastrous effects of the WMA is for Congress to pass the “Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act” (H.R. 2657 and S. 1232), also known as the PRIME Act.

Passage of the PRIME Act would give states the option of allowing the intrastate sale of meat slaughtered and processed at a custom facility direct to the consumer or to hotels, restaurants and retail stores; a custom facility could be located at a farm. Please read action alert on H.R. 2657 by the Weston A. Price Foundation and call your U.S. Representative asking him or her to co-sponsor H.R. 2657.

If the PRIME Act passes, Maine farmers could potentially be able to sell the meat from on-farm slaughtered animals to those in their community as LD 725 originally intended. This is something that has been going on for sometime in various ethnic communities in the U.S., including Latino, African, Southeast Asian, and European communities. If there have been any food safety problems with this practice, there have been few, if any, reports in the media.

The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 was a solution in search of a problem that wound up creating much bigger problems than it was meant to solve. Passage of the PRIME Act is an important step towards rebuilding the slaughterhouse infrastructure in this country and enabling livestock farmers to make a better living and meet the demand for quality locally produced meat.

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1. United States. Small Business Administration and United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Small Business. The Effects of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 Upon Small Business: A Study of One Industry’s Economic Problems Resulting from Environmental-consumer Legislation. U.S. Govt. Print. Off, Washington, 1971. pp. 11-12.

2. Naughton, Dennis. The Wholesome Meat Act and Intrastate Meat Plants. Creighton Law Review, vol. 4, 1970. Footnote 19, pp. 88-89.

Why Does the USDA Need Submachine Guns?

Many people are asking “Why would the USDA need Submachine Guns?”

In May 2014, the US Department of Agriculture filed a request for weapons including submachine guns and semi-automatic or 2 shot burst trigger guns. This request has many, including the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, questioning what need the USDA could possibly have for such heavy arms.

According to a USDA spokesperson, the weapons are necessary for self-defense during undercover operations and surveillance. As Modern Farmer points out, this sounds like a legitimate reason when, in actuality, most of their enforcement operations relate to white-collar fraud of government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Nor would such heavy arms be necessary in on-ground investigations into small farms and producers – for example, investigations and raids surrounding whether small farms are selling raw milk.

“Do we really want to have our federal regulatory agencies bring submachine guns onto these family farms with children?” asks Liz Reitzig, co-founder of the Farm Food Freedom Coalition.

The Campaign for Real Milk is a project of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education non-profit based in Washington, D.C. To learn more about raw milk and other nutrient dense foods, attend one of the upcoming Wise Traditions conferences.