|Joel Salatin, author and owner of Polyface Farms|
Yesterday, Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the PRIME Act (H.R. 3187), a bill that would empower states to pass laws allowing the sale of custom processed meat. Farmer/slaughterhouse owner Joel Salatin writes on how the current meat processing regulations work and how the PRIME Act can provide a huge shot in the arm to the local food movement.
For consumers unfamiliar with the vagaries of abattoir licensing, the difference between “inspected” and “custom” can sound like a foreign language. Why wouldn’t you say “inspected” and “uninspected”? To anyone looking at options, that seems like something you can compare. But “inspected” and “custom” sound like a cross between a vintage car and a driver’s license.
When an animal is slaughtered “under inspection,” that means a government inspector actually stood on the kill floor, observed the whole process, then looked at some of the organs, and established that the meat or poultry (poultry is not meat in the government lingo) is fit for human consumption. But the inspection does not end there. To continue under inspection, a whole host of compliance needs to be maintained, including periodic cooling temperature recordings, infrastructure requirements, and perhaps most important, labeling verbiage. All of this compliance entails complex Hazardous Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, which essentially define operating procedures to the nth degree. Copious paperwork. In the end, though, this is the only meat or poultry that can be legally sold in America.
“Custom,” on the other hand, refers to animals slaughtered and processed without that government agent on the floor. In other words, a government representative did not actually see the work being done. This designation was developed as an alternative to inspection primarily for people who took their own animals to the abattoir for killing and processing. The language usually revolves around the phrase “an animal of their own raising.” In other words, I raised a beef steer and then took it to this facility to have it slaughtered and cut up. I simply bring home packages labeled “T-bone” and “ground beef”, put them in my freezer, and enjoy my own animal.
Because custom entailed simply paying for a service on my own animal, the government rightly reduced the regulations on these facilities when granting a license. These facilities are inspected for general cleanliness and procedures and are granted licenses just like their “under inspection” counterparts; the main difference is that a physical government agent is not visually looking at every animal slaughtered and processed.
While both facilities are inspected in order to get a license to operate, only the ones with the extra paperwork and physically-observed processes get the designation “inspected.” As the inspection paperwork became more and more onerous, small abattoirs trying to comply with “under inspection” found the overheads too expensive, and thousands have closed up. Custom facilities, however, who do not have a government agent breathing down their neck every minute of the day and who do not have to maintain onerous paperwork, have been able to survive easier on a community-based scale. Packaged meat and poultry coming out of a custom facility must be stamped “Not for Sale.”
As the integrity food movement has grown, the lack of community-available meat and poultry processing options has become the single biggest hurdle between the farmer and the would-be customer. As a result, farmers became desperate to use the custom facilities to get product to their neighbors. As a general rule, as long as the customer buys an ownership interest in the animal prior to slaughter (USDA’s policy is that the animal can be sold in no smaller portions than a quarter), the customer can legally obtain meat from that animal.
A huge market, therefore, exists whereby farmers take animals to the abattoir but put it in their customers’ names. Steer No. 34 is owned by Jane Doe. Steer No. 5 is owned by Jim Smith. The farmer’s name never goes on that carcass; only the customers’ names. This has enabled many local meat and poultry transactions to occur that couldn’t have if limited to “under inspection” facilities. Because the overhead and on-site inspection amenities like bathrooms and offices for the inspector are not necessary under custom, abattoirs can offer their services far cheaper.
I co-own a small federal inspected abattoir in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and our price differential is more than 30 cents a pound (based on carcass weight) which translates to about 50 cents a pound on finished product—simply due to the reduced onerous bureaucratic paperwork. The rationale for allowing custom meat and poultry to be sold is simple: if I can take Steer No. 34 down and slap four names on the four quarters and offer it under custom compliance, and that’s okay, then why shouldn’t I be able to sell a T-bone steak to a neighbor off that same animal? Or a pound of ground beef? Designating the rear quarter prior to sale is no different than bringing those packages home and selling them one by one out of my freezer. Not one iota of food safety regulations differentiate one from the other, except that one is “sold” before death and the other is “sold” after death.
Allowing states to decide to free up their customhouses and farmers to enable cheaper market access to neighbors is one of the most sensible food freedom ideas to come along in a long time. This is just one way to encourage integrity food and direct producer-consumer commerce rather than impede it. With all the hoopla regarding local food systems, this is a no-brainer and would save all of us headaches and meaningless parasitic bureaucratic food costs. By freeing up these neighborhood abattoirs and the farmers and consumers who support them, our country would add a tremendous amount of abattoir capacity and greatly cheapen the cost of local food systems without compromising food safety at all. That sounds like a winning policy.
Visit Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm and more at Food Freedom Fest 2015!
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