Large meat and poultry processing plants across the country have been shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The pandemic has underscored the lack of resilience in the meat and poultry processing sectors, shining a new light on a longstanding problem. As a result, consumers have shown an increased interest in buying local products, including meat and poultry. To support that interest, new legislation has been introduced to assist smaller processing facilities.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced legislation this week to support small meat and poultry processors. The Strengthening Local Processing Act will expand options for local producers and assist smaller facilities as they adapt to the coronavirus pandemic and expand to meet demand.
“Maine has almost 3,400 diversified small farms that raise livestock, but our farmers have to book their dates as soon as the hooves hit the ground because the processing availability is so strained,” said Pingree. “Under the Strengthening Local Processing Act, our state would have increased slaughter and processing capacity, allowing us to produce much more meat and chicken right here in Maine. This legislation would bring much needed relief to Maine farmers, offer support for Maine’s small slaughterhouses and butchers, many of which are family-owned businesses, and allow consumers to access the local products they desire, especially during this time of disruption to the national supply chain.”
“There is a broadening concern over corporate concentration in the meatpacking industry. In a previous time, we had more local meat processing. This bill helps stimulate a return to that previous model, creating a robust market in local economies, linking the farm to the family,” said Fortenberry.
Under federal law, in order for a farmer or rancher to sell individual cuts of locally raised meats they must first send their animals to one of a limited number of U.S. Department of Agriculture or state-inspected slaughterhouses. These slaughterhouses are sometimes hundreds of miles away and there are far too few of them across the nation. As a result, many smaller meat and poultry processing plants are booked out for months, and small farms are unable meet new demand due to a lack of processing capacity.
The Strengthening Local Processing Act will increase the federal share of costs for state inspection from 50 to 65 percent and for Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) facilities from 60 to 80 percent, thus encouraging more states to operate state inspection programs and participate in CIS. There are currently 27 states that operate a state inspection program and eight states that participate in CIS. The legislation would also authorize competitive grants to small and very small establishments, state inspected facilities, custom exempt facilities, or new small-scale slaughter facilities for activities related to COVID-19 response and recovery. It would also authorize a new $10 million grant program for colleges and universities to establish or expand meat processing training program and a new $10 million grant program for small and very small establishments or nongovernmental organizations to offset the cost of training new meat processors.
“Small plants play a critical role in ensuring farmers and ranchers are able to process their products, especially during the increase in demand for more local and regional meat and poultry during the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill is a strong step towards ensuring scale-appropriate regulations and support for small plants that maintain and pursue federal and state inspection,” said Kelly Nuckolls, Policy Specialist, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition