There aren’t enough federally regulated slaughterhouses anymore. For many farmers, the closest facility with an inspector onsite is a couple hours away, even if they’re only planning to sell the meat at a farmers market. This costs more for the farmer, which raises prices for the consumer, and goes against the idea of local food.
What if, instead of hauling their livestock to a USDA certified facility, a farmer could just take the animals to the local custom slaughterhouse, like she would if she were consuming the meat herself, and like she can when she sells shares of the animal? Is this any less safe for the end consumer?
House Bill 3187, the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, aims to answer these questions, with a rousing no: it’s not any different, or any less safe. Currently in the House Agriculture subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture, the bill would allow intra-state distribution of custom-slaughtered meat to individual consumers and to restaurants, hotels, boarding houses, and grocery stores that directly serve consumers. (In USDA terms, “meat” refers to four-legged livestock, not poultry, which is an entirely different conversation.)
Introduced by U.S. Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in July, the bill has gained 19 bipartisan cosponsors from 12 states, including Coffman (R-Boulder) and Polis (D-Aurora) from Colorado. It is supported by Joel Salatin as well as the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, and would be a boon to the local food movement.
So what is a custom slaughterhouse, anyway? Custom means that there isn’t a federal inspector present during the slaughter, there isn’t the same red tape and paperwork, and there aren’t silly nit picky details necessary in the facility, such as a private bathroom and office exclusively for the inspector (yes, those are actually required at USDA inspected facilities). Custom facilities are inspected for general cleanliness and procedures and are granted licenses just like their “under inspection” counterparts; the main difference is that a physical government agent is not visually looking at every animal slaughtered and processed. Custom slaughterhouses have lower overhead costs, which transfers to lower costs for the farmer and lower prices for the consumer.
Under current regulations, only owners of an animal can have it slaughtered at a custom facility, and the meat cannot be sold. All of the meat Ben and I eat comes to us in this fashion (picture above). We buy live animals from local farmers, have the animal slaughtered in a custom slaughter house, and enjoy a fantastic, local product all year long – a product we cannot produce on our urban farm. But, this option is quite expensive for a once or twice a year purchase (we save all year for these purchases), and the upfront amount can be cost prohibitive for many families.
A less expensive option is for farmers to sell shares of no less than a quarter of an animal prior to slaughter, and still have that animal slaughtered in a custom facility and then distributed to those four consumers who had shares. This is a legal work-around to the issue of USDA versus custom slaughterhouses that has been safely in affect for a number of years, but the reach is limited. Again, most consumers can’t afford even a quarter share of meat at one time. So if this method is safe, then why isn’t it also safe to have this same meat sold in grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants where consumers could buy single packages at a time?
Joel Salatin, food freedom advocate and owner of Polyface Farm said of the bill, “This is directly freeing for both farmers and non-farmers—it emancipates meat from the stranglehold of paranoid consumer advocacy groups, tyrannical bureaucrats, and corporate protectionism.”
The pros are obvious: more freedom for consumers, reduced costs, and increased accessibility of local food to more people. The bill grants freedom to consumers and producers alike, but allows states to implement on their level. If a consumer didn’t want to eat non-inspected meat, then he could still purchase USDA meat.
Opponents will say that we will see an increase of food-born illnesses if we roll back requirements on inspection during slaughter. But as far as I’m concerned, if I can trust the person slaughtering my animal to do it so that it’s safe for me and my family to consume, shouldn’t it be safe enough for everyone? Shouldn’t everyone have access to safe, local meat if that’s what they want for their family? Supporters of the PRIME act think so, and I tend to agree. Honestly, I think USDA slaughterhouses are a racket, and Big-Ag stands to lose if custom slaughtered meat can be sold directly to the public. Keep an eye on this issue – I’m predicting some oh-so predictable push-back from the big packing plants here in the States.