by Kelly Lester
Policy Analyst for the Center for Food, Power, and Life, John Locke Foundation
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the meat processing industry was in crisis mode. With migration mostly on hold due to border restrictions, the industry was already having a tough time with staffing before viral cases and even breakouts started happening in the facilities. These combined factors caused meat processing facilities to struggle to keep up with demand, sometimes having to shut down for weeks at a time.
The problem might have been less serious and more manageable if more meat processing facilities were allowed to distribute meat both intrastate and interstate.
Currently, interstate selling of meat products is limited to meat coming from federally inspected meat processing facilities. The issue is not a matter of differing standards, however. Under the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, state-inspected meat processing facilities, which exist in North Carolina and 28 other states, must meet the same requirements and standards as federally inspected facilities. Even so, state-inspected facilities can sell their products only in-state.
Such restrictions hamper the free flow of meat products, essentially handcuffing the industry’s supply chain. Most harmed are smaller meat farmers who are deprived of access to out-of-state consumers, while customers must pay higher prices due to the limitations on supply.
A bill before Congress, the PRIME Act (for “Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption”) would be geared to curtail supply-chain issues during economic shocks by addressing certain regulations and restrictions on small-scale meat processing. With a large, bipartisan list of cosponsors, the bill would grant states the authority to regulate the processing and sale of meat products within their borders, without interference from federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This would be a step in the right direction, but more can be done.
Currently, small-scale farmers and ranchers face significant challenges in accessing local meat-processing facilities due to various federal regulations and inspection requirements. The PRIME Act would seek to alleviate these barriers by allowing the sale of meat processed in custom slaughterhouses directly to consumers, restaurants, and retailers within the same state. This exemption would apply as long as the meat products do not cross state lines, making it an intrastate commerce issue.
Critics, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other interest groups, express concerns regarding food safety risks, asserting that federal inspections are essential to ensure consumer protection. They argue that exempting small processors from federal oversight could lead to potential health hazards and a lack of uniform standards across state lines.
Supporters, however, argue that the PRIME Act would empower local producers, enhance food sovereignty, and provide consumers with greater access to locally produced meat. Smaller-scale processing facilities can uphold high safety standards while accommodating the specific needs and preferences of local communities. In addition, there is the problem of the federal government regulating intrastate commerce, a power that should be completely left to the states based on their individual economic situations.
For example, poultry farmers with less than 20,000 chickens are already allowed to process their own meat or go to custom slaughter facilities to sell within their own states. If poultry farmers have been doing it for years without major safety concerns, why can’t hog and cattle ranchers?
Nevertheless, while the PRIME Act’s deregulation would be a positive reform, the legislation may not be the right solution to future supply chain shocks, given that it would be limited to intrastate commerce. A better solution, and one that might gain support from large ranch operations and wavering congressmen, would be to keep state standards equal to federal standards and allow interstate sales of meat from state-inspected meat processing facilities.
Such a measure would particularly benefit the hog industry in North Carolina, which is the third largest producer of pig meat in the nation, behind only Iowa and Minnesota. Given North Carolina’s comparative advantage in pork, state officials should be pushing for easier and faster production of pork for interstate sales by allowing for the interstate sale of pork processed at state-inspected facilities.
Regulation of interstate commerce is the bailiwick of the federal government. In recent years Congress has been debating legislation to make a blanket allowance of interstate sales from state-inspected facilities, but no proposal has yet passed into law. Here is where North Carolina officials can step up to the plate by providing information on how to apply for a program that allows for interstate commerce to state run meat processing facilities.
The Cooperative Interstate Shipping Program is a program in the United States that allows certain state-inspected meat and poultry products to be shipped across state lines. It was established by the USDA in 2011 to provide greater market access for small-scale processors and to support local food systems.
Under the program, states can enter into agreements with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to have their own meat and poultry inspection programs deemed “at least equal to” federal standards (which they already must be anyway). Once a state’s program is deemed equivalent to federal standards, then eligible processors in that state can apply for participation in the Cooperative Interstate Shipping Program.
Unfortunately, though North Carolina would be qualified for participation in the program given that it is one of the 29 states with a state-inspected meat processing program, North Carolina nor any of its meat processing facilities currently participate. The number-one producer of pork in the nation, Iowa, however, does. So unlike North Carolina, Iowa can better expedite and expand its export of pork while supporting small hog farmers.
A blanket allowance of state-inspected meat products would still be preferable, of course. But while Congress debates, North Carolina officials can and should take advantage of the Cooperative Interstate Shipping Program. Doing so would help small farmers who may have a hard time transporting animals to federally inspected facilities, while it would also grow North Carolina’s agricultural economy and national footprint.