Editorial:

Let states have more power to regulate meat processing

Posted 7/2/20

What is it they say about roads paved with good intentions? 

For about 50 years now, most of the meat we buy and sell in America is regulated by the federal government. You can slaughter any …

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Editorial:

Let states have more power to regulate meat processing

Posted

What is it they say about roads paved with good intentions? 

For about 50 years now, most of the meat we buy and sell in America is regulated by the federal government. You can slaughter any livestock you own and eat all the meat you get from it, but if you want to sell the meat, federal regulations come into play. 

The intention of the laws was to make meat safer for people to eat, but like so much the federal government does, even when the intent is sound, the outcomes are full of unintended consequences. 

In order for a meat processor to sell across state lines, its facilities need to be federally inspected. State-inspected facilities can only sell within Wyoming, which greatly limits their markets and therefore, their potential revenues. This creates barriers for new local butchers to set up shop, and so it’s not surprising they sometimes take orders months in advance.

It’s even more expensive for a facility to comply with the requirements of federal inspection, which opens up the facility to interstate markets. 

For this reason, smaller slaughterhouses that meet these requirements are exceedingly scarce. In a state that boasts 1.3 million cattle, Wyoming only has two federally inspected facilities that slaughter cattle, and both of them have come online only in the past few years. 

According to a Wyoming Business Council study released in February, the total estimated annual slaughtering capacity for state and federally inspected facilities in the state is about 21,000 animals. Federally inspected facilities account for about a third of that. Only about 10% of the state’s total meat processing capacity is in the Big Horn Basin. 

Federal law requires that state regulations be at least as strict as the federal ones, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that state-inspected facilities can’t sell across state lines. 

With the paucity of local meat processing, cattle ranchers are largely at the mercy of four large conglomerates, which process 80% of all beef in America. At a time when beef prices are soaring at the supermarket, processors are paying less than ever. 

In May, attorney generals in Wyoming and 10 other states asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the four big meatpackers for predatory pricing. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, it’s treating a symptom of a much wider problem. So long as federal regulations make it cost-prohibitive to invest in local processing, the big four meatpackers are going to control most of the market in this country. 

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., introduced the Expanding Markets for State-Inspected Meat Processors Act of 2020, which would allow state-inspected facilities to sell meat across state lines. If passed, it would not only expand the markets available to existing local meatpackers, it would encourage investment in new ones. 

This would create jobs, bring down meat prices and create a lot more competition against the big meat packers, without making our meat any less safe for consumers. 

The federal government needs to relax its grip on meat processing and put more oversight in the hands of the state. The free market will do the rest.

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