Empty meat counters caught shoppers off guard at the start of COVID-19. Even Wendy’s had shortages, leaving diners asking, “Where’s the beef?” The experience was new for many people, but Nebraska rancher Karina Jones saw the vulnerability far in advance.
Long before COVID-19, decades of consolidation in the meatpacking industry had squeezed neighborhood slaughterhouses out of business, leaving just four suppliers in control of more than 80 percent of U.S. production. The big companies, Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef, prefer centralization. But the system puts consumers at risk if anything goes wrong.
A 2017 warehouse fire in Maine, for example, caused months of turmoil. And a 2019 slaughterhouse fire in Kansas wiped out 5 percent of U.S. beef production overnight. The disruption from COVID-19 was even more widespread because the pandemic hit several large facilities at once.
“Ranchers like me always have known the fragility of our food supply,” says Jones, who runs a family enterprise with her husband near Broken Bow, Nebraska. “We always knew deliveries could be shut off within 48 hours, and meat cases could be empty.”
As the coronavirus spread, panicked neighbors increasingly reached out to Jones and other farmers across the United States to see if they had meat for sale.
“The reaction to COVID was a whole lot more consumers wanting local products, so all the small farmers were inundated with orders,” says Debbie Davis, who raises Texas longhorns with her husband near San Antonio.
Unfortunately, the ranchers had to turn people away. The problem was not lack of inventory, but strict rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that criminalize the sale of meat processed at small slaughterhouses exempt from round-the-clock federal or state inspection.
Rigorous health standards still apply at these mom-and-pop outlets, but code enforcers visit only sporadically — similar to spot checks at restaurants. People who bring livestock to these facilities can use the meat for personal consumption or sell animal shares prior to slaughter. But once the cow becomes beef or the pig becomes pork, no money can change hands.
If ranchers want to sell anything, they must transport their livestock to centralized feedlots and processing facilities often hundreds of miles away. Besides creating stress for animals and wasting resources, the long journey pulls workers away from daily chores. “I feel fortunate that I only have to drive 150 miles,” Davis says.
Proposed legislation, called the PRIME Act, would provide relief. The reform would end USDA restrictions on custom slaughterhouses, allowing states to set their own guidelines. Residents in many jurisdictions would gain new freedom to buy and sell locally produced meat.
“Ranchers like me always have known the fragility of our food supply. We always knew deliveries could be shut off within 48 hours, and meat cases could be empty.” — Nebraska rancher Karina Jones
The nonprofit Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that fights for economic liberty, has joined the campaign urging lawmakers to pass the PRIME Act. The bill makes sense under any circumstance, but especially during crises like COVID-19.
Custom slaughterhouses that were busy before the pandemic are now booked months in advance. Some ranchers can’t get appointments until July 2021. The backlog shows high demand for local meat processing, but neighborhood butchers do not step in to fill the gap due to onerous regulations that punish small operations.
“There are not enough butchers because of regulations,” says Dena Hoff, a farmer and sheep rancher from Glendive, Montana. “Passing the PRIME Act would help reverse the trend.”
As more custom slaughterhouses opened, ranchers who currently lack a Plan B would have alternatives — a much better solution than euthanizing millions of animals because they have nowhere to go. Even without the risk of supply chain disruption, consumers like knowing where their food comes from.
Something powerful happens when buyers and sellers meet face to face. Food becomes more than a commodity. It connects people to each other and the land.
PRIME Act opponents cite hypothetical health concerns, but farmers point to real-world evidence that custom-exempt slaughterhouses are safe. In response to a public records request from the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance, the USDA reported zero cases of foodborne illness at custom slaughterhouses in at least the past eight years .
Many consumers paid little attention to meat distribution prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic provided a wakeup call. People with new awareness must act. A good place to start would be reaching out to their representatives in the U.S. House and Senate, urging support for the PRIME Act.
Ranchers have sufficient meat for every home. What they need are more slaughterhouses.
Daryl James is a writer and Erica Smith is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.