New bill seeks to increase small-scale meat processors

By Jennifer Dorsett

A new bill introduced in the U.S. House would boost American meat processing by helping small and local meat processors.

The bipartisan Strengthening Local Processing Act, proposed by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), would increase federal funding for meat inspections available to states and help small processors expand processing capacity.

“There is a broadening concern over corporate concentration in the meatpacking industry. In a previous time, we had more local meat processing,” Fortenberry, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member, said in a release. “This bill helps stimulate a return to that previous model, creating a robust market in local economies, linking the farm to the family.”

Federal law requires farmers and ranchers who wish to sell cuts of locally-raised meats to send their animals to one of a limited number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or state-inspected slaughterhouses.

In a press release, Pingree said slaughterhouses are sometimes hundreds of miles away from these farms and ranches, and there are not many in existence. Many small processing plants are booked for months or even years ahead, and small farms are unable to meet additional demand because of the lack of processing capacity.

If the legislation passes, the federal share of state inspection costs would increase from 50 to 65 percent, and the federal government’s portion paid to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) facilities would increase from 60 to 80 percent.

Proponents say this would encourage more states to run state meat inspection programs and participate in the USDA CIS program.

Through CIS, under specific conditions, state-inspected plants can operate as federally-inspected facilities and ship products via interstate commerce or internationally. Otherwise, state-inspected plants are limited to sales within that state’s borders.

Currently, 27 states have a state inspection program, but only eight participate in CIS.

Competitive grants would be awarded to small and very small processing plants, state-inspected facilities, custom-exempt facilities or new small-scale slaughter facilities for activities addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery.

In addition, $10 million in grant funding would be authorized for colleges and universities to establish or expand meat processing training programs and another $10 million would be allocated to small and very small processors or nongovernmental organizations to train new small-plant operators and their employees.

It’s the latest piece of legislation in a series of bills introduced attempting to solve tensions exposed in the nation’s meat supply chain earlier this year with the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Ranchers were also affected as the spread between cash livestock prices and boxed beef prices made record leaps.

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