When Rhiannon Hampson’s dairy herd births a male calf, she jumps on the phone that week to schedule its slaughter two years away. She crosses her fingers that the date she books will work or she’ll be able to trade with another farmer for the eight-hour round trip to the USDA-certified processing facility, one of only five in Maine.
A shortage of processing facilities is the biggest limiting factor for Grace Pond Farm, the small organic dairy and pastured livestock farm she and her husband Gregg Stiner own and run in the coastal Maine town of Thomaston.
“It limits the number of animals we can raise every year,” she says. “It’s a lost economic opportunity for us in the short term.”
In the long term, Stiner and Hampson say, this arrangement slows down the regenerative practices they employ. The couple works land that has been farmed since the 1600s and consider it part of their job to revitalize it. Hampson, whose off-farm job is a district representative for agriculture for US Rep. Chellie Pingree, says their farm has more open and forested pastureland than it can currently graze because of the lack of availability at the slaughterhouse to process more animals. This means their capacity to restore and revitalize the land through regenerative grazing is limited.
“We have to have an end point for them – they can’t just be adorable lawn mowers and forest pigs,” she says of her animals.
Some states, such as Maine, don’t necessarily have a shortage of processors but a shortage of processors that are USDA-inspected, a designation needed for the producer to be able to sell its meat. While Maine has only five USDA-inspected facilities, it has another eight state-inspected slaughterhouses. These must be “at least” equal to federal inspection regulations and allow the sale of meat within the state. The state has twelve custom-exempt facilities that process meat for farmers and hunters for their own personal use, but that meat cannot be sold. For many small custom slaughter facilities, the costs of becoming and maintaining USDA-certification are prohibitive.
Some parts of Northern California and Texas lack any type of accessible meat processors for farmers.
McGeary Family Farm, a regenerative farm just northeast of Austin, Texas, faces the same processor shortage for its sheep and cattle. Judith McGeary, who owns the farm with her husband Mike, says the long trip to the processing facility not only increases costs but also increases stress on the animals.
She knows, though, that she is fortunate to have even this limited access. “There’s a pretty broad swath of the country where there’s no USDA-inspected processors,” says McGeary, who is the executive director and founder of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit that works on developing policies that benefit small farmers. She says the financial and ecological benefits that diversification into livestock brings to a farm aren’t available to these farmers.
Judith McGeary says farmers need regulation that doesn’t stand in the way of something as low risk as direct-market meat production. Photo courtesy of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
Both McGeary and Hampson are rooting for a bill called the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, which they hope will help solve this problem. The PRIME Act would allow states to set their own regulations for the retail sale of meat by expanding the exemption status of custom-exempt processing facilities.
Under current regulations, meat processed at these facilities can only be for personal, guest or employee use. That means farmers must find a USDA-certified facility to process any meat they want to sell. If Congress passes the PRIME Act, meat processed at these often smaller facilities could be sold to consumers, restaurants and grocers within the state, which supporters say would give farmers more options and cost savings they can pass on to consumers.
McGeary and Hampson are rooting for it, but they’re not holding their breath, since the bill, co-written by Rep. Pingree, a Maine Democrat and longtime organic farmer, and Rep. Thomas Massie, a Tea Party Republican from Kentucky, has been introduced to the House five times without success.
“Since I first introduced it in 2015, I’ve continued to reintroduce the PRIME Act so small farms and communities could benefit from increased processing capacity nationwide,” Pingree said in an emailed statement. “The coronavirus pandemic has further underscored the need for more processing options as large meatpacking plants have shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks and consumers have increasingly searched out local options.”
In opposition to the bill are groups such as the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute. They have argued that the bill would compromise food safety by allowing the commercial sale of meat that hasn’t been inspected by federal inspectors.
The bill, which is supported by the James Beard Foundation, does not propose that there be no inspection at all of meat at these facilities but, rather, to put regulatory control of it in the hands of individual states.
Farmers who support the bill don’t see food safety as an issue. “If the [custom-exempt] facility is clean and professional enough for our family and friends to consume, why is it not safe enough to sell?” says Hampson.
According to the USDA, there are more than 1,900 non-USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the country. This number includes both state-inspected facilities and those that fall in the “other” category, including custom-exempt. Only 27 states have state inspection programs. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service found no reports of food-borne illnesses at custom slaughterhouses from 2012 to June of 2020, according to the response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance last June.
Trey Gilbert, the fourth-generation owner of Herring Brothers Meats, a USDA-inspected meat processor in Guilford, Maine, recognizes the shortage. He’s booked solid from July to December and constantly turns people away—but he isn’t sure the PRIME Act is the answer.
“Obviously, it gives me more competition in the world—I’m not worried about that,” he says. “But… if they don’t have to be up to USDA standards, why do I? There’s no reason for me to be USDA-inspected and go through all the hoops—and there’s a lot.”
Gilbert, whose great-grandfather started the business 105 years ago, has a full-time onsite USDA inspector, funded by the federal government, frequent veterinary visits (also federally funded), and regular testing, which means waiting on sample results before selling the meat. There are also strict monitoring guidelines for cleanliness and temperature of each part of the facility’s operations, which all add to a heavy paperwork burden.
Although some costs are paid for, he says the certification costs him more overall because of expenses related to upkeep to comply with the federal regulations. And he has to pay for any overtime accrued by his USDA inspector, which was a lot last spring when he quadrupled production to keep up with grocery store orders when the big slaughterhouses shut down due to COVID-19.
Despite her many failed attempts to get the bill passed, Pingree doesn’t appear to be giving up. While she hasn’t explicitly committed to reintroducing the same bill to the new session of Congress, she said she plans to “continue to support small farms like the ones I represent in Maine by working on legislation that expands processing options for local producers.”
Small farmers aren’t giving up either. Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance is looking into a law at the state level that would create more flexibility in the sale of meats in Texas, similar to one passed in Wyoming last spring. Ranchers in Northern California recently formed the Bay Area Ranchers Co-op, which just put a down-payment on a USDA-inspected mobile processing unit, slated to be up and running by April to serve a region currently without access to meat processing.
McGeary says farmers need regulation that doesn’t stand in the way of something as low risk as direct-market meat production. “There’s multiple factors that would explain why we see greater quality and greater safety with small-scale producers,” she says. “So if you step back and you think, how would you build a safe food system? How do you reduce the overall extent of food-borne illnesses? It’s when you have a system that promotes small-scale localized production.”
Correction: Jan. 26, 2021
An earlier version of this article misstated that Rhiannon Hampson schedules an appointment with a slaughterhouse as soon as her dairy herd births a “steer.” Male calves are birthed, while steer refers to a castrated male bovine.