Pandemic-caused production backups and supply-chain disruptions at large US meatpacking plants have helped a number of proposed federal bills gain traction, including legislation to help increase processing capacity and new markets, review and adjust inspection standards, and allow more options for ranchers and small processors to move products to customers.
These developments and what to expect from Capitol Hill were the focus of a breakout session during the California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting.
Sara Arsenault, Farm Bureau director of federal policy, who led the discussion, said all the bills share one main focus: to expand local markets and to help people gain access to animal protein products "in the most efficient, safe, and productive way."
During the breakout session, Carmen Rottenberg, a former administrator of the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service who now works as managing director of the Virginia-based consulting firm Groundswell Strategy, described the various proposed bills and their potential impact to meat processing.
Even before the pandemic, Rottenberg said, there had been "renewed interest" in the PRIME Act, or the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, which she said has been introduced "many times" through the years.
The bill would amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act to allow sale of meat processed by custom-slaughter facilities, which are exempt from federal inspection. Currently, people can process their own meat in these facilities but cannot sell or donate it for public consumption.
An important consideration for this legislation, Rottenberg said, is its potential impact on export markets, because the US would no longer be able to state that its meat is federally inspected, which Arsenault said could have large implications for current and future trade agreements. Currently, all meat sold in the US that crosses state lines must be federally inspected.
State-inspected meat, which must be equal to federal standards, cannot cross state lines unless it is under the Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program. Twenty-seven states maintain their own state meat-inspection programs, with seven of them participating in the CIS program. The other 23 states, including California, rely entirely on federal inspections.
A recent proposal known as the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act would allow state-inspected meat and poultry to be sold in interstate commerce.
The biggest challenge for this bill, Rottenberg said, is states would not be able to control what happens in another state in the event of a public-health situation if the states don't fall under the CIS program. For example, one state would not be able to recall product if there were an animal disease outbreak in another state, "which is really why we ended up with the federal system in the first place," she added.
The proposed legislation Rottenberg recommended ranchers focus on is the RAMP-Up Act or Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants Act, which would authorize federal grants of up to $100,000 for existing meat and poultry facilities to help them make improvements to become federally inspected, so they could sell meat in interstate commerce. The bill is intended to address the need for more meat-processing capacity, by providing small processors money to invest in facilities that would meet USDA requirements, she said.
Rottenberg acknowledged some small processors don't want to be federally inspected, because they can't afford to pay overtime for USDA inspectors if they operate more than 40 hours a week. Large packers, she noted, get up to two eight-hour shifts of free inspection.
The Small Packer Overtime and Holiday Free Relief for COVID-19 Act would provide funding to help cover a portion of the overtime expenses, she said, noting there's "pretty significant bipartisan support" for the bill.
"We need to give relief on overtime, and there's no reason why the federal government can't appropriate additional funds," Rottenberg said. "My hope would be that folks would see how important this is to small and very small processors."
Another issue that could affect ranchers relates to country-of-origin labeling and potential changes to the meaning of "Product of the USA."
According to a longstanding USDA rule, a meat product can bear this label if it was processed in the United States, even if the animal was imported. Rottenberg said US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has "floated the idea" of allowing only meat products that have been slaughtered and processed in the United States to bear that label as a compromise.
"We'll see where the Biden administration goes with that, but I think that's something worth watching too, because there's a lot of interest in that," she added.
With respect to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Rottenberg said major meatpacking companies already employ medical teams that now perform health screenings and testing at their plants, and they want to "step up and be helpful," potentially using their medical teams to help move vaccines, as they have the freezer capacity, trucks, and technology to maintain the temperature and storage requirements of the vaccines. (See related story, Page 1.)
Rottenberg said she thinks some of the issues addressed in the various pieces of legislation will come up in the next farm bill.
Arsenault agreed, saying through her conversations with people on Capitol Hill, "meat processing capacity has certainly been a focus, and it sounds like it will be a priority within the next farm bill."
Whether these issues are addressed through the farm bill or the next stimulus package, Arsenault said, "We're definitely going to see some changes, some improvements."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation