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Congress can level the playing field for small farmers

Congress can level the playing field for small farmers
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Congress, currently working on a new farm bill, has an unprecedented opportunity to include in the bill a bipartisan amendment that could provide real and lasting benefits to thousands of small farmers and millions of consumers across America.

The amendment, the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (“PRIME Act”), would level the playing field for small farmers around the country who raise cattle, pigs, and sheep for human consumption.

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States have been prohibited from setting their own inspection rules since Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act in 1967. Under that law, USDA inspectors or state inspectors enforcing regulations at least equal to USDA rules are present whenever animals are being slaughtered or processed.

 

Under the PRIME Act, the USDA would maintain its undisputed regulatory authority over the slaughter and sale of meat across state lines. The PRIME Act would simply provide states with the option to regulate livestock slaughter and sale within their borders.

Critics rightly complain that the agency’s one-size-fits-all rules often act to the detriment of small producers. But other problems are also evident. According to USDA data analyzed by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of small farmers and their customers (and on whose board I serve), slaughterhouse consolidation spurred by the Wholesome Meat Act is responsible for closing more than 7,000 of the 10,000 facilities that existed in 1967, the year the law was passed.

What’s more, though America’s food supply is remarkably safe today, the current USDA inspection system is plagued with problems. In 2007, the USDA was forced to admit its inspectors had failed to perform regular inspections at many facilities for at least three decades. More recently, the agency ordered nearly 9 million pounds of meat to be destroyed after a USDA-approved slaughterhouse was found to have processed cows that suffered from eye cancer.

Many states are willing to operate their own inspection systems. Already, more than half of the states operate their own inspection facilities under rules that are at least as strict as those the USDA requires. Demand for the specific reforms offered by the PRIME Act is evident, too, in many states. For example, though a bipartisan Wyoming law passed in 2015 deregulated local food production inside state borders. In 2017, Maine passed a similar law that allows cities and towns to regulate local food sales inside their borders. But neither state’s law applies to meat, and since adopting their respective laws both Wyoming and Maine have faced threats from the USDA over the issue of meat processing and sales.

In addition to the USDA, large, powerful interest groups that represent big meat producers, including the National Pork Producers Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, oppose the PRIME Act. Though they’ve couched their arguments against the bill in dire predictions about its potential to impact food safety, those food-safety fears are as disingenuous as they are unsupported by evidence. In reality, these large meat producer lobby groups and their members fear competition from smaller competitors.

In fact, passage of the PRIME Act could usher in important improvements in food safety. For example, by reversing decades of consolidation, the growing number of slaughterhouses competing for farmer dollars would likely give farmers more opportunities to shop around and partner only with slaughter facilities that maximize their values and that champion food safety. 

Democrats who support the PRIME Act, including co-sponsor Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeHouse votes to overhaul fishery management law Congress can level the playing field for small farmers ‘Let food be thy medicine’ MORE (D-Maine.), do so because the bill would help local livestock farmers, particularly those who raise grassfed beef, compete with larger producers. Republicans who support the PRIME Act, including Pingree’s co-sponsor, Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump caps UN visit with wild presser | Accuses China of election meddling | Pentagon spending bill clears House | Hawks cheer bill | Lawmakers introduce resolution to force Yemen vote House lawmakers introduce bill to end US support in Yemen civil war Rand Paul’s Russia visit displays advancement of peace through diplomacy MORE (R-Ky.) do so because they find federal regulations intrusive and cumbersome. 

Both Massie and Pingree raise grassfed beef on farms in their respective home states. In a time of growing partisan divide, the PRIME Act is a bipartisan solution to a decades-old problem created by Congress itself.

Americans are eating more meat than ever. They’re also rediscovering the joys of eating locally produced foods. The PRIME Act would help farmers better meet these intertwined consumer demands.

Baylen J. Linnekin is a Seattle-based food lawyer and author of “Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.” (Island Press 2016). He can be reached at baylen.linnekin@gmail.com.