What the PRIME Act Means for Local Meat Farms

Picture of cows in grassy field

That meat you purchased at the farmers market may have come from nearby local meat farms, but before making it to your table, it likely took a long trip – hundreds, maybe thousands of miles – to be processed. A bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to keep local meat local by cutting out the travel requirement.

Regulations in the U.S. require all commercially sold meat to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at designated processing plants. The number of USDA-approved facilities has fallen over the years. The entire state of California has only three facilities, according to USDA data. This forces farmers to travel farther to follow the rules, increasing their costs.

Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, want to make it easier for small-scale livestock farmers to process meat at local slaughterhouses when it is intended for sale within the state. They introduced the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (or PRIME Act) to address the problem.

“As a producer of grass-fed beef, I am familiar with the difficulties small producers face when marketing directly to consumers,” Massie said in a statement. “Despite consumers’ desire to know where their food comes from, federal inspection requirements make it difficult for them to purchase food from local farmers they know and trust. These onerous federal rules also make it more difficult for small farms and ranches to succeed financially. It is time to open our markets to small farms and producers and give consumers the freedom to choose.”

The federal rules “defeat the purpose” of locally raised meat, Pingree added in the statement. Pingree also raises grass-fed beef.

If it passes, states would be allowed to set their own standards for processing meat sold within their borders, allowing farmers to use custom slaughterhouses – those without a USDA inspector on site – to process locally raised meat for commercial sales.

Currently, custom slaughterhouses enjoy exemption from federal inspection regulations to process meat for personal consumption. It’s not for sale. When you buy a cow from a farmer, you can get it processed at the nearest establishment without any problems. When a farmer wants to sell locally raised meat to consumers, restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores, he or she has to go through the USDA.

Such requirements act as a major roadblock for small-scale farmers looking to sell their locally raised meat directly to consumers, according to a 2011 USDA study that surveyed more than 8,000 small-scale operators. The travel that’s required to process the meat affects product quality, food safety, and animal welfare.

Picture of a pig leaning over a wall

Roadblocks like these for small-scale local meat farms could hurt future efforts to bolster local food systems and address climate change around the world.

Livestock farming represents a significant portion – 18 percent in 2000 – of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, but small-scale livestock farmers tend to use practices that do less harm, according to an international study that examined the role of small-scale livestock farming on climate change and food security.

The study argues that small-scale farmers should be part of the on-going global discussion of food security because they rely on traditions and local knowledge that promote sustainable use of the land. These farmers are more adaptable and their animals compete less for human food.

Setting aside the big picture, the PRIME Act falls in line with consumer demand for transparent food sourcing and responsible practices.

The change would give consumers a better idea of where their meat comes from, save farmers the cost of transporting animals to USDA-approved facilities, and keep responsibly raised meat from co-mingling with meat from conventional farms, avoiding food safety concerns.

“If we can change the federal regulations a little to make it easier to process meat locally,” Pingree said, “it’s going to help farmers scale up and give local consumers what they want.”

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Cow photo via Flickr

Pig photo via Flickr