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COVID-19 Disrupted The Meat Supply Chain. Proposal Would Let Local Processors Step Up To The Plate

Jennifer Mitchell
For small scale farmers like Chris Peters, slaughtering time can be a long and expensive process

Bare spots on store shelves serve as a reminder that this has not been an ordinary year. While there is plenty of meat being produced by farmers, they have had trouble getting their meat processed due to outbreaks of COVID-19 at processing plants.

In Maine, many processors have more work than they can handle. The situation may be breathing new life into a bill co-authored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, called the PRIME Act. Critics say it could turn the clock back on consumer safety, but supporters say it would create a safer and more stable meat supply.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public
Maine Public

For small-scale farmers like Chris Peters, slaughtering time can be a long and expensive day, involving loading animals and driving to a state-inspected facility, which is more than an hour away over country roads.

"It costs gas, time — which, we have no time working on the farm — instead of bringing them to some fellows in the next town up, or doing it right here on the farm if we'd want to," he says.

Under the provisions of the Processing Revival And Intrastate Meat Exemption, or PRIME Act, farmers like Peters would be allowed to use so-called "custom processing" facilities, a number of which already exist for processing moose, deer and livestock intended for personal consumption. Those facilities are licensed by the state, but at the moment, any meat that goes through a custom processor must be labeled "Not For Sale."

Peters says if the PRIME Act were passed, he would be better able to meet a noticeable spike in demand from customers clamoring to buy meat.

"I'm getting a lot more people asking me about it. 'How many are you raising this year? Do you have any piglets for sale?' And I know other farmers who are sold out for the fall," he says.

The rules associated with meat processing are fairly complex, and a number of exemptions and programs already exist. There are rules governing intrastate versus interstate sales, wholesale versus retail, small scale and large scale. But the general rule at the moment is that if a farm wishes to sell the meat it produces, in-state or out-of-state, it must go to a plant that has had a state or federal inspector actually present on the grounds at the time of slaughter.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public
Maine Public
While there is plenty of meat being produced by farmers, they have had trouble getting their meat processed due to outbreaks of COVID-19 at processing plants.

Pingree, who raised cattle on North Haven Island, says these processors can be few and far between, even at the best of times. And during the pandemic, state-inspected processors, like Barry Higgins at Maple Lane Farms in Charleston, are seeing about four times the business they normally do.

“We are strained just as much as we can possibly do,” Higgins says.

Higgins says he is having to stop taking orders periodically to catch up. Meanwhile, stores need more meat. As for the PRIME Act: "I do think there's some merit to it, but I just think that we don't want to go too fast and not have the proper inspections process in place."

But Chuck Lawrence, who operates the Tradewinds Markets grocery chain, one of which is just up the road from Peters, says he is always interested in buying more local foods. They do tend to be more expensive, but he says customers have probably noticed some price increases already.

Normally, Lawrence says the store buys 95 percent of its meat from Hannaford Brothers, but he has not been able to get it due to the supply chain problem. That means he has been buying from restaurant suppliers and other smaller processors who are working around the clock to send out local meat.

Lawrence says a USDA stamp provides quality guidelines, which he wants preserved for consumers.

"They have select, choice and prime," he says. "I think that there needs to be some way to communicate to the customer what they're getting for a product."

Pingree has tried unsuccessfully to get the bill through before, but she says the problems highlighted by COVID-19 have earned the bill some new fans. One of them is Republican U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, who says state governments already oversee a great many things and have also taken the lead in responding to the public health crisis of COVID-19. He says that if the federal government does not really need to be involved, it should not be.

"States can make many of these decisions. You know, a lot of times people look at any kind of change in regulation as, ‘Well you just don't want any regulations.’ No,” Davidson says. “I'm a Republican, I'm not an anarchist. I'm for limited government."

But among those adamantly opposed to the PRIME Act are a number of national trade associations. Sara Little, from the Meat Institute, a D.C.-based trade group representing the red meat and turkey industries, told Maine Public in a statement that while Pingree's bill is being touted as a food and farm empowerment act, its real impact would be to "create a dangerous fracture in the nation’s food safety system."

The statement goes on to say that the bill would set a dangerous precedent by authorizing the commercial sale of noninspected meat products, and that it would create a serious loophole that would compromise the U.S. food safety system and consumers’ confidence in it.

Pingree says she is not buying the health and safety argument from such organizations.

"I've been on the Agriculture Committee for ten years and the Agriculture Appropriations Committee, I can't tell you how many committee hearings we've had where they come in and they want to deregulate the safety systems around meat,” she says. “They've sped up the lines. They've been eating away at those safety regulations for a very long time."

And Pingree says consumers want to know who their farmer is and how their meat was raised. She says there is no reason to assume that more local oversight would be less safe.

There is no scheduled action for the PRIME Act, but earlier this month Pingree sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urging floor action on the bill.

Willis Ryder Arnold contributed to this report.

This story is part of Maine Public's series "Deep Dive: Coronavirus."