What about the PRIME Act? – Emergency Measures to Protect the US Meat Supply During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alan Lewis

Alan Lewis

I. Background

Longstanding policies that favor concentrated control by global conglomerates have undermined American livestock producers and curtailed local economic opportunity. The effects of this “meat monopoly” have been exposed by coronavirus.

A.  Many American livestock producers depend on restaurant and institutional markets, which have closed due to COVID-19. Consumption has moved to in-home preparation. Mainstream meat processing plants can’t keep up with re-directed demand from retail stores resulting from restrictions on food-service businesses.

B.  Livestock producers could shift deliveries to fill the gap caused by increased consumer need to buy direct from farmers and from meat at grocery stores, but federal rules often prevent areas of high supply from selling to consumers or shipping across state lines into areas of high demand.

C.  Meat processing capacity at large plants has been significantly reduced due to spread of COVID-19, curtailed immigration, and ICE enforcement. About 27 large plants supply the majority of conventional meat products. Closures and reductions in available workers causes a noticeable effect on supply.

D.  There are thousands of small and medium size processing plants still operating, but they process animals at a slower (and safer) speed and are already overwhelmed by the increase in requests for processing caused by the closure of the big plants. They cannot take on new customers and services are sometimes reserved twelve months out. This bottleneck will tighten after spring feeding when mature fattened animals are ready for market.

E.  Lack of access to livestock processing creates economic and social distress among livestock producers.

1.   Producers are feeding mature animals without a market to sell them to.

2.   Monopoly livestock markets are offering to buy at prices below production costs.

3.  Live animals are being sold for pennies on the dollar an any taker.

4.   Some herds and flocks are being killed en masse.

F. American shoppers will experience reduced availability of meat and increases in the retail price of meat as supply tightens.

G.  Killed-off herds will take years to rebuild and rebalance.

H.  Foreign meat producers using substandard practices are allowed to sell imported meat as Product of USA.

1.   Consumers are mislead and confused by untruthful and fraudulent labeling

2.   Global meat conglomerates use their own fictitiously low import pricing to quash value of US livestock. American producers must compete with a phantom foreign market.

3.  Many retailers and pacakged brands knowingly buy foreign meat and label it Product of USA despite its source.

II.  Governing Laws and Regulations

A.  Federal Oversight

1.  USDA Inspected Plants – FSIS Inspection Requirements

a)  Inspector present before, during, and after slaughter to ensure animals are healthy and slaughter is humane and safe.

b)  Unfit animals quarantined or refused

c)  USDA trained inspector on-site during processing

d)  Facility is inspected constantly for sanitation practices while operating

e)  Pathogen testing at intervals

f)  Unfit meat from animals is diverted and destroyed

g)  Meat graded primarily on fat marbling and age

h)  USDA “Mark of Inspection” allows interstate sales & exports

i)  Inspection services paid for by USDA

2.  State-Inspected Plants (state regimen must match federal requirements)

a)  The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1967 (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1968 (PPIA) limits state-inspected meat to intrastate sales. 1,900 small or very small establishments in 27 states operate under this FSIS-approved regimen. The remaining states have only federally inspected plants and exempt facilities.

b)  The Talmadge-Aiken Act of 1967 established Federal-State cooperation using state employees to provide federal inspections to allow for interstate sales. 360 establishments in nine states operate under these provisions. All states may agree to recognize these federally-sanctioned state inspection programs to allow transport and sale between their states, under the Cooperative Interstate Shipment of State Inspected Meats program.

c)  2008 Farm Bill allows states to opt to create their own inspection systems the “same as” the federal government’s and then may ship across state lines, but eligible plants are limited to those with an average 25 or fewer employees.

d)  Under some state programs, all or part of inspection costs are paid by USDA.

3.  Foreign Slaughter and Processing

a)  Meat from livestock slaughtered and processed overseas under another nation’s laws may be imported into the US. After minimal cutting or packaging in the United States, it can be labeled “Product of USA”.

b)  USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service “Policy Book” allows “Product of USA” label on imported meat.

4.  Establishments Exempt from Meat Processing Inspection

a)  Restaurants and commissaries doing further processing carcasses or meat cuts for their own customers.

b)  Custom processors providing slaughter of animals and cutting of meat owned by their customers and delivered to their customers marked “Not for Sale”. Referred to as “Custom-Exempt”.

c)  Slaughter and processing by an individual for personal use and non-paying guests

d)  Poultry processing up to 20,000 birds a year for in-state sale if regulated by the state.

e) Note: all exempt facilities must still comply with FSIS safety and sanitation rules and may be subject to state/local inspection and licensing as food handling facilities.

III.  Proposed Emergency Measures

A.  Allow meat processed by Custom Exempt Processors to be resold to consumers within each state subject to safety oversight.

1.  Establish minimum qualifications and training for full-time on-site inspectors at Custom-Exempt processors to allow for sale within the state.

2.  Enforce appropriate staging, slaughter, processing, and storage rules for small scale processors to maintain a high level of animal welfare and food and worker safety.

3.  Require expanded labeling for resale meat, including “Processed and Inspected under emergency COVID-19 rules”.

4.  Require the purchaser’s name and contact information to be logged by the seller to ensure traceability and contact in case of a recall.

5.  Re-employ healthy experienced workers and inspectors from closed plants.

6.  Invest in local infrastructure, training, and employment opportunities.

7.  This measure essentially implements the PRIME Act under temporary emergency rules but requires on-site inspection while operating.

B.  Expand capacity at state-inspected meat processing establishments by allowing new inspectors to cover additional plant shifts.

1.  Establish minimum qualifications and training for additional inspectors to expand capacity through additional lines or extended hours.

a)  Veterinarians and Vet Techs with training on large animal health

b)  Persons with specialized experience, training, and meat processing in meat processing

2.  Allow existing state inspectors to oversee and review temporary inspectors.

3.  Appoint a statewide coordinator to approve emergency inspectors with guidance from USDA.

4.  Reopen closed and shuttered small processing establishments using start-up grants and loans.


C.  Allow meat processed by state-inspected establishments to be sold across state lines.

1.  State inspections already match federal practices.

2.  Fund additional hiring and training of qualified on-site inspectors to expand capacity.

3.  Draft expanded labeling requirements including “Inspected by [state name] Dept of Agriculture in compliance with USDA FSIS Rules.”

4.  This would allow 1900 processing plants in 27 states to sell into interstate commerce.

D. End fraudulent and misleading loopholes for in-store retail signage and label claims regarding the origin of meat:

a)  Reserve “Product of USA” exclusively for meat from animals born, raised, and processed in the United States of America. An example of a change to state law:

“A retailer who sells beef or offers beef for sale shall use a conspicuous placard that is readily viewable by the public and placed where the beef is located to designate and display the beef as: (A) “U.S.A. Beef” if the beef is exclusively from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States or born and raised in Alaska or Hawaii and transported for a period of not more than sixty days through Canada to the United States and slaughtered in the United States; or “Imported” if the beef is from any animal born, raised, or slaughtered in any foreign country. The placard for Imported Beef must indicate each country.”

b)  Current federal FSIS policy allows imported meat to pass through US plants and be labeled “Product of USA”. This loophole creates unfair competition with domestic producers, significant meat safety issues, and is a fraudulent representation confusing to American consumers. Here is the proposed change to the FSIS Policy Book:

Product of the USA Labeling – The Committee is aware of a citizens’ petition to amend the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Standards and Labeling Policy Book as it pertains to meat and meat products bearing the label of “Product of U.S.A.” The Committee acknowledges that FSIS’s current definition that allows for meat and meat products to bear the label “Product of U.S.A.” if “the product is processed in the U.S.” is incongruent with the vast majority of consumers’ perception of the “Product of U.S.A.” label. The Committee urges the Agency to clarify the current regulations to ensure that “Only meat and meat products from animals born, raised and harvested in the United States are allowed to bear the label “Product of U.S.A.”

E.  Direct government purchasing programs to access domestic, local and smaller-scale meat processing sources first.

F.  Ban government purchases of meat raised or processed in other countries.

 IV.  Current Legislation

The PRIME Act would repeal the federal ban on the sale of meat from custom exempt slaughterhouses. The bill returns control to the states to address the issue of meat processing. States would be able to permit producers to sell meat processed at a custom slaughterhouse within the state. States could choose to impose whatever conditions or limitations that best suited their particular agricultural, food system, and social conditions. These facilities meet state regulations as well as basic federal requirements. They are typically very small with few employees. The extensive and complicated federal regulations that apply to massive meatpacking facilities are neither needed nor appropriate for these operations, which might process as much meat in an entire year as the large facilities do in a single day. Their small scale also means that they are better able to provide necessary social distancing and sanitation measures while safely continuing operations.

A.  The PRIME Act could help improve access and reduce meat prices for consumers in the coming months while providing income for small farmers and ranchers across the country. And it has many long-term benefits:

1.   Help establish vital infrastructure in rural communities.

2.   Improve farmer incomes and opportunities.

3.   Increase consumer access to locally raised meats.

4.   Reduce stress on animals from long-distance hauling.

5.   Reduce transportation miles and greenhouse gases.

B. Small Plant Safety Under the PRIME Act.

Some believe the PRIME Act may not provide adequate food safety oversight to ensure only wholesome meat products reach consumers. Suggested amendments to fix this oversight while still keeping to the intent of the bill are:

1.   Establish minimum qualifications and training for full-time on-site inspectors.

2.   Enforce appropriate rules staging, slaughter, processing, and storage for small scale and low volume processors to maintain a high level of animal welfare and food and worker safety.

3.   Require expanded labeling for resale meat, including “Processed and Inspected under emergency COVID-19 rules”.

4.   Require purchasers to provide name and phone number or email to Custom Exempt seller to ensure traceability and contact in case of a recall. Wholesale purchasers will maintain their normal FDA approved recall response protocols to notify their customers.

5.  Encourage custom-exempt plants to re-employ healthy and experienced workers and inspectors from closed plants

V.  Resources and Sample Letters

1.  Sample letter to Governors and Departments of Agriculture (on request)

2.  Sample letter to Members of Congress (on request)

3.  Sample letter to USDA Secretary of Agriculture (on request)

4.  Sample letter to White House (large type, on request)

5.  Phone numbers and emails (on request)

a) Federal legislators, regulators, state Ag and Governor info

6.  References to each law and reg mentioned above:


b) Federal-State Cooperation on Meat Inspection

c)  Federal-State Cooperative Agreements: GAO Report

d)  State Depts of Ag Regulations Overview

e) Primer on US Food Safety Regulation – Report to Congress

f) Talmage-Aiken Act (State Inspection for Interstate Sale)

7.  FSIS Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book

8.  ATTRA / NCAT Resources:

· Finding a Local Poultry Processor

· NCAT Directory of Small Poultry-Processing Plants and Services

· Special Help for Small and Very Small Processing Plants

· Mobile Processing Units

· Red-Meat Inspection Basics

· Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network (NMPAN)

·  ATTRA Publications about Meat Production

· Resources about Small-Scale Meat Processing

9.  Primer on Livestock and Grassland Ecology (by the author – on LinkedIn)

10.  National Association of State Agriculture Departments Resources:

·       Interstate Meat Shipment Issue Paper

·        Map: Number of State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Plants

·        Interstate Meat Shipment Creates a More Uniform Inspection System

·        Interstate Meat Shipment: Fairness in Trade

·        Interstate Meat Shipment: History of Support from USDA and Congress

·        Interstate Meat Shipment: Expands Small Business and Rural Development

·        Interstate Meat Shipment: More Competitive Markets

·        Coalition Urges Action on Interstate Meat Sales Legislation

·        Interstate Sales Legislation is about Economic Fairness

·        The Real Facts About State Meat And Poultry Inspection

·        ND Department of Agriculture

·        Urgent Need to Improve the Relationship & Communication between FSIS and the State Inspection Programs

·        State Review Process of Meat Inspection Programs

·        Implementation of the New Title V Interstate Meat Shipment Program

·        Letter to Secretary Vilsack Conserning Interstate Meat Inspection Programs3/06/09

·        Implementation of the New Title V Interstate Meat Shipment Program: Recommendations

·        Interstate Meat Sales Bill Introduced

·        House Interstate Sales Bill Introduced

·        State Agriculture Officials Urge Action On Interstate Meat Sales Legislation -Group Launches National Grassroots Campaign to Support Passage

·        Coalition Urges Action on Interstate Meat Sales Legislation

·        Interstate Sales Legislation is about Economic Fairness

·        Compromise Reached on State Meat Inspection

·        Letter from Fred L. Dailey in support of S 1988

·        Coalition Letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee in support of S.1988

·        2000-09-19 S. 1988, the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat Act

·        Letter Requesting Status on Report to Congress Reviewing State Meat and Poultry Inspection Programs

·        2005-10-13 Letter Requesting Meeting to Discuss Interstate Meat Shipment

·        Urgent Action Request-Senate Action on Interstate Meat Shipment

·        Interstate Shipment of State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Products Letter of Transmittal, November 2, 1999

·        Action Alert-The Senate Ag Committee is meeting today to decide whether or not to take action on interstate meat shipment legislation on S.1988

Hatch-Daschle substitute amendment to S. 1988, legislation to lift the unfair ban on interstate shipment of state inspected meat.

Header Photo: Business Insider

May 9, 2020 

From Greg Gunthorp and Mike Callicrate:

We are not opposed to the Prime Act per se.

We do not believe however that it should be our big ask regarding inspection because of the COVID pandemic.

Economics and access to labor are the biggest challenges facing our country’s small packing plants.  They have 6-10 times more labor in a pound of product than the 300 to 400 head per hour cattle plants, 1000 head per hour hog plants, and 170 birds per minute chicken plants.  And the marketplace does not allow them to fairly compete against the predatory and deceptive marketing practices of the big guys.

Most niche meat in the stores and distribution is from the same big guys that have destroyed this industry.  So, I reiterate it’s not going to solve our economic struggles nor our labor issues of running little plants.  And then add in that its not going to be accepted as legal in lots of jurisdictions.  Look at the poultry exemptions. Those only work for in-state sales to non-institutional buyers in most areas.  In some states, the federal exemption isn’t even allowed, or only allowed for on-farm pickups.  That isn’t going to bring about the fundamental and transformational changes we want in rural America and our food supply.

The Prime Act can’t change the meat in the grocery store because non-inspected meat can’t be sold in the grocery store (liability). We need reform of inspection systems. We need sane and reasonable state meat and poultry inspection systems in each state. These need federal legends on the products. No distinction in difference in the labels except the establishment numbers. No restrictions to go across state lines. The only restriction should be less than 50 full-time employees and a separate system for export verification.

We need federal funding for constraint points in existing and new slaughter facilities as well as micro on-farm processing only facilities.

We need truth in labeling. Food fraud is rampant. The various agencies need to figure out who is responsible for assuring the label isn’t deceptive or misleading. COOL must be mandatory. “Product of the USA” should be for the U.S. born raised and processed only.

The PRIME Act doesn’t require inspection. In an economy in which the biggest cheater wins, small processors have NO chance of success, unless they cheat, and cheat they will. States must have inspection (better than current USDA) and products must be able to cross state lines in order for small plants to access population centers.

If we consider the PRIME Act the solution, we will miss an important opportunity to get real change.

From Food and Water Watch:

We are opposed to the PRIME Act. While we agree that USDA rules can be a burden on small plants and that big companies are good at manipulating that system to their advantage, we don’t support measures like the PRIME Act that we believe would essentially wipe out federal inspection by letting state-inspected meat cross state lines. This would totally undermine federal inspection because big companies would switch to state inspection because state agencies are easier to push around.

Instead, we support measures such as Sen Booker and Rep Pocan’s Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act that would break up consolidation so there are more options for slaughter, including within the federal inspection program.

Local Veterinarian Inspection:

We could employ rural veterinarians and vet techs as meat inspectors under the Talmadge-Aiken Act. This would save USDA a lot of money and provide inspection by professionals that live in the communities where full-time, and especially less than full-time inspection is needed. There is dire need to rebuild our local/regional food systems, especially around meat processing. Consumers would have access to better quality, locally produced meat. Animals would avoid the stress of long-distance travel to big slaughterhouses. The economic benefits of more of the food dollar remaining in farming and ranching communities would be substantial.

Many veterinary clinics have too much work for one vet, but not enough for two. Inspection duties could mean better job opportunities for veterinarians and many more jobs for packing plant and related industry workers.

The vet schools (CSU) might like the idea of adding a potentially valuable meat inspection credit as part of the vet school curriculum.

USDA hasn’t liked the idea due to the deeply embedded mission to put small plants out of business in favor of their bosses, the big meat packers.

I would estimate that USDA, under the current onerous and ineffective rules of HACCP and confrontational inspectors, increases the small plants costs by 30% or more.

I currently have inspectors that travel over 300 miles one-way to provide inspection in St. Francis. My inspector from a couple of weeks ago traveled in from a COVID-19 infected area. This is a huge biosecurity risk to our workers and the community.

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