The PRIME Act

H.R.2657 a/k/a S.1232 a/k/a the PRIME Act is a relatively recent bill before Congress. The idea is simple: custom slaughterhouses should be able to sell meat to in-state consumers and retailers (i.e., grocery stores, butchers, restaurants, hotels, etc.).

The PRIME Act is a good thing for American food, and I hope you call your representatives to support it. The long-term success and sustainability of food in America depends on devolved, local control rather than centralized, industrial manufacture. The PRIME Act is a crucial step towards local control of meat production.

The state of play: meat sold in the US goes through USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, where full-time USDA inspectors do carcass-by-carcass inspection. The rules about these facilities are notorious for forcing a certain kind of scale; for example, hygiene rules mean that most facilities end up providing dedicated bathrooms for the inspectors. These facilities aren’t always close to producers. Your friendly farmer down the way may have to drive several hours to get to the nearest plant. Not fun for the farmer, not fun for the animal, not fun for the meat. Right now, custom slaughterhouses get used by meat shares (a nice bit of chicanery where animals are held jointly before slaughter and the meat is distributed among co-owners) and farmers raising their own food, but Federal law prohibits selling the meat retail. Custom slaughterhouses are still inspected and subject to state law, but the rules are less draconian.

You might worry—as I did—that the PRIME Act is deregulation gone awry. Don’t we want safe, inspected meat? While it’s possible that some custom slaughterhouses will do a worse job than USDA inspected facilities, USDA inspection doesn’t have a great track record. Moreover, the PRIME Act doesn’t override any state laws concerning custom slaughter.

You might worry—as I do—that the PRIME Act will pave the way for vertically integrated industrial meat: what’s to stop, say, Smithfield from avoiding USDA slaughterhouses and doing a custom job on-site? But the PRIME Act authorizes custom slaughterhouse meat for sale only in the state where it was slaughtered. I wasn’t able to find text in the bill mandating any particular labeling regime, but those details may be left to, e.g., state or FSIS regulation rather than law. Hopefully custom-slaughtered meat will be clearly labeled (beyond lacking the USDA shield).

Finally, you might look at some of the bill’s co-sponsors and balk. And: fair. Relaxing these rules is a moderately risky proposition, and it may even lead to decreasing the quality, availability, or affordability of food for some people. I’m still in support of the bill, though, because I think it will very much help the kind of small producer I’d like to see more of.

So: call your representative, especially if they’re on the Subcommittee Livestock and Foreign Agriculture. Tell them that you think the PRIME Act is a good idea: it will open up excellent new opportunities for small producers to connect with restaurants and consumers, both directly and through retail; it will create a new market for farmers, slaughterhouses, and butchers; it will support and sustain local food and, in so doing, local foodways and culture.

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