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.

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