The Prime Act

As you know, meat availability is being threatened because of Covid outbreaks in slaughterhouses throughout the nation forcing processors to either shut down or operate at partial capacity. Because of this many folks who otherwise had no idea, are seeing how the cogs work in the greater meat industry in the United States—especially red meat.

For several decades now, globalization and consolidation has been lauded as progress—particularly in the food industry, because size affects efficiency and price, and we embrace a cheap food policy in the USA, which has caused the demise of small farms and meat processors at unprecedented rates. This has allowed 80 percent of red meat processing to be the hands of only four corporations. And as usual when an industry is controlled by a few players, regulation and policymakers are readily “wined and dined” to favor the corporate industry—in this case, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which oversees meat processing.

Here’s the scoop. Until the early 1900’s and Upton Sinclair’s writing of The Jungle, meat processing was a free-for-all industry. Sinclair’s novel, which was intended to spotlight the ill treatment of immigrant workers—described in gruesome detail the atrocities taking place in the Chicago meat industry—and as he later said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Which is to say the novel didn’t have the intended consequences.

Sinclair’s description of the filth in large meat packing plants caused public outrage, and resulted in the first-ever government intervention into private sector business. The Teddy Roosevelt administration assigned the USDA to oversee the production and processing of meat, and implemented FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Services), as an arm of USDA to enforce the new regulations.

As it stands today, it’s illegal to sell a steak or pound of ground beef that hasn’t been processed in a USDA facility and carries the USDA label. Because of the heavy paperwork requirement of USDA facilities—as well as increasing USDA reluctance to provide inspectors for small processors (while retaining the right to withhold inspection services at any time), fewer USDA facilities exist today than ever before. Most farms, in order to have their animals USDA processed, find it necessary to travel hours to the nearest facility.

On the other hand, numerous small processors exist who operate only on a “custom” basis. Custom means they can process beef or pork for anyone, as long as that person owns the animal. Therefore, we can sell you a quarter of a beef, take it to a custom processor, you tell them how you want it cut, and all is well and legal. These facilities are inspected twice a year by the USDA, instead of daily. They can slaughter without having an inspector onsite. They are clean, organized and professional. And I know of a handful within a 15 mile radius.

For the record, I’m not against all regulation of the meat industry, but feel USDA oversight has gone too far. It’s not an inclusive system, but has developed into a fraternity that bars entrance of small establishments. This is not 1906. We have reliable cold storage, we have stainless steel, far more universal knowledge of food safety exists now. It’s not about food safety anymore, but about control of commerce. Recalls come from the big plants, not these small custom places.  A burger patty at McDonald’s has pieces of 600 cows in it; a burger patty from a custom house has only one cow in it.  The risks are exponentially less in a smaller, community-based facility. 

What’s the solution? You know I’m not for salvation by legislation, but the solution to this problem, by nature, will need to come through legislative changes, but it requires action from the people. For five years now, Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) has been presenting a bill called The Prime Act. It’s gained almost no traction until now.  In the last three weeks, he’s picked up 18 co-sponsors.  That’s dramatic for a bill that stalled for 5 years.

The Prime Act simply says that custom slaughtered meat can be sold within the state.  Why should everyone who wants to get neighborhood raised and processed meat be required to buy a $600 quarter?  What if a neighbor only wants T-bone and a pound of ground?  What if the neighbor doesn’t have a chest freezer?  The current regulations are both price and poverty discriminatory. 

Congressman Massie says that many former operators of small facilities who have gone out of business (due to the implosion of the processing industry) have assured him that the day the Prime Act passes, they will re-open their doors and gladly solve the processing bottleneck in our broken food system.  Few legislative initiatives could offer a more simple, comprehensive assurance of food security and marketplace competition to the 100 mega-processors that dominate our dysfunctional meat chain.  It’s the Prime Act.  Massie says don’t email and don’t write a letter.  Call; he says if 12 people call on a subject, they own their congressman on that issue.

Given today’s meat shortage, the opportunity presents itself as a wide open door for this bill to be implemented. Let’s be part of the solution! Call your congressmen and ask them to support H.R. 2859.

P.S. Don’t know who your representative is? Click here to find him.

Quotes worth Re-quoting – 
“We the people tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ~ Ronald Reagan

“We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.”
~ John F. Kennedy

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