Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Alexia Kulwiec

As to that delicious steak or pork chop you are about to sink your teeth into, do you know where it came from? Will the grocery refrigerated cooler where you purchased that meat be empty tomorrow? 

In the quest to produce beef and pork free of pathogens that could cause food borne illness, the United States has created a system that leaves the nation’s food supply vulnerable to a health crisis such as the country is now experiencing. At the same time, the U.S. system has decreased the ability of smaller local producers, often involved in humanely raising healthy animals, to provide healthy foods to the consumer. While strong health and safety measures are needed in the local food movement as elsewhere, smaller operations could be a large part of, if not the, solution to the current vulnerability in the U.S. food supply.

The world, but specifically North America, is beginning to experience the drastic impact of the ongoing consolidation of the meat processing industry, with concerns growing over the stability of the food supply. U.S. and local regulations must change to decrease this impact and can do so by supporting local independent growers. In the United States, USDA inspected meat processing plants have temporarily closed in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin. In Canada, a Covid-19 outbreak at a single Cargill plant in Alberta impacted close to one-half of Canada’s beef supply. Closed plants cannot process the beef and pork demanded by consumers. In turn, farmers and ranchers lack a market for their products.  As an alternative and supplemental supply of meat products, consumers can obtain food locally sourced from producers they know and trust. 

Until recently, the position of the USDA, and perhaps of consumers generally, was that to ensure a safe meat supply, meat must be slaughtered in USDA inspected plants. The federal Wholesome Meat Act requires processing of all beef and pork to be slaughtered and processed in USDA inspected facilities or state facilities that follow standards at least as stringent as federal rules.  

In the abstract, this regulation has some merit – consumers rightfully demand beef and pork products free from pathogens, illness or other contaminants that could cause injury or illness. To date, while safety of meat produced has improved, the meat processing system itself, broadly speaking, is failing to meet the needs of American consumers. The past month in the United States has demonstrated that consolidation has led to a serious vulnerability in U.S. meat production as well as compromised safety and health of the meat processing workforce. 

Also the food system as presently constituted, in part because of USDA regulations, fails to support local independent operations that help address the instability of the market. 

Not healthy for the stability of the U.S. food supply
There has been tremendous consolidation in meat processing industries over the last several decades. The top 4 beef processors control approximately 80% of the U.S. meat supply. The top 4 pork processors account for approximately 63% of the U.S. market. The consolidation into just a few top processors has led to fewer and larger meat slaughter and processing facilities. As we have seen the past few weeks, the closure of one or more of these plants can have a serious impact on the nation’s supply of beef and pork. By one estimate, 10% of all beef production and 25 % of the U.S. pork production has closed after 13 packing and food processing workers died after contracting Covid-19. Because of the consolidation in the meat industry, one plant closing can have an enormous impact on the U.S. supply of fresh beef and pork.  

Not healthy for workers
Workers in the meat and poultry industry on average earn less than $15 an hour and earn 44% less than workers in other manufacturing jobs. Yet this is dangerous work and has been prior to Covid-19. Eight plant workers died between 2013 – 17 from work related injuries, and a good number more lost body parts or were hospitalized for work injuries. Many suffer unreported injury and illness, particularly disabling musculoskeletal illness caused by high lines speeds and difficult repetitive work. Workers report long hours without breaks, lack of adequate access to sanitation facilities, and tremendous pressure to meet high productions quotas.

The regulatory system has supported growth of large-scale slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, where social distancing is impossible, line speeds have put workers’ safety at tremendous risk and conditions have already caused unnecessary injuries. Employees work shoulder to shoulder, processing up to 400 cattle per hour. During the Covid-19 crisis, workers have reported being encouraged to work even if they appeared sick. Many did not receive any PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, and at least 13 workers have died from exposure to the virus. As well as the toll on workers, this has led to the closure of a number of plants. This negatively impacts the nation’s supply of beef and pork.

Not healthy for local and smaller producers and their markets
The consolidation of the U.S. meat processing industry has been particularly difficult on smaller, local operations. Local processing plants that satisfy the USDA or state requirements are in short supply. Massive consolidation in the meat processing industry has led to the processing of most beef and pork in fewer but large processing facilities. As a practical matter, such facilities serve the industry. The often will not accept small quantities for processing, thus making it nearly impossible for smaller meat producers to ensure inspection of products for sale to consumers. At best, small producers are often told that plants cannot process their meat for six months. At worst, they are turned away. In addition, small producers have to transport their animals long distances for processing at these plants, often hundreds of miles. This transportation has an obvious environmental impact and causes unnecessary stress to the animals transported for slaughter. These delay and distance hurdles also create financial disincentives for small producers to raise animals for sale locally.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that consumer demand for local sustainably grown foods is increasing. Consumers want to know how their food is grown and processed, are interested in a shorter supply chain, and wish to support local producers. 

These producers can certainly be part of any solution, yet they lack feasible access to approved processing facilities. In addition, while custom slaughter operations can process meat for an animal owner, these facilities are prohibited from processing meat for sale. This in turn continues to drive the consolidation of the industry that has made the nation’s food supply vulnerable during a crisis. Expanding the ability of these independent facilities, with appropriate safety regulations, to process meat for sale would help expand our nation’s safe meat supply.

Is the 400 an hour cattle processing really the best method to provide safe and healthy food?
So how do we keep this local food supply safe? Modifying regulations that allow for differences for smaller, local plants could increase the number of smaller plants. The current USDA meat processing  regulations are numerous, difficult, and unduly burdensome on a smaller operation. Accounting for the differences in the size of processing plants while maintaining safety standards could go a long way towards decreasing reliance on a number of large plants. This would lessen the vulnerability to our food supply of the closure of one large facility. Allowing for a more diverse production system but with continued stringent safety standards would limit our reliance on the four corporations that control 80% of the American beef market and the few controlling pork production.

Modifying OSHA regulations protecting workers, such as providing for slower lines speeds and perhaps a plant design that allows workers more space, can impact the safety and health of employees as well maintain a healthier workforce. This in turn makes plant closure less likely in the event of a virus or other illness. Such a system can, and should, continue to impose rules to ensure the health of the meat supply. Certainly this may impact price. However, more competition from a more diverse supply chain would also positively impact price, as will transportation savings to independent producers

To this end, one option is the proposed change in federal law called the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (“the PRIME Act”), H.R. 2859. The Prime Act would repeal the ban on sale of meat processed by “custom slaughterhouses” that meet state regulations and basic federal requirements, but not those needed in larger facilities that are not as relevant in smaller operations. Currently, animal owners can have their own meat processed in these facilities but cannot sell products processed at custom facilities.

Opponents argue against permitting farmers and ranchers to sell to consumers without the benefit of USDA inspection citing health and safety concerns. Yet under the PRIME Act, states are free to develop regulations of the industry to ensure safety while increasing access to wholesome food.

Opponents have also argued that there is a lack of accountability by the smaller producers under this system. Yet, smaller local producers are much more financially impacted by any problem in their food production. One illness is likely to drive them out of business, which in turn drives them to often utilize far greater protections in raising, slaughtering and processing their animals. 

In the alternative to new federal legislation permitting local processing and sales directly to the consumer, the USDA and the states must increase the number of inspectors and provide for an increased number of smaller facilities. A greater number of smaller facilities would ensure that the impact of just one plant closing would not have a great impact on the U.S. food supply. It would also allow for greater physical space between employees, protecting them from contact during a health crisis such as Covid-19. It serves local producers, and the environment, in that they will spend less on transportation and be more likely to be able to profit from selling their meat locally. It helps meet consumer demand for locally grown organic food that meets animal welfare standards. Without more facilities, a local farmer or rancher who raises cattle in pasture without unnecessary antibiotics and houses the animal in clean facilities is often forced to then stress the animal by transporting them hundreds of miles for slaughter and processing, thus defeating many of the benefits of animals raised humanely. 

The current USDA practices and procedures drives out small producers and processors at a critical time when our food supply demands more, not less, producers. This in turn has placed the U.S. market for meat, and consumers, in a vulnerable position. It has placed almost all of our beef and pork production in the hands of just a few giant corporations.  As the Covid -19 virus has made us painfully aware, the corporations placed profit before the safety of our overall meat supply, not to mention their workers whose very lives have been put at risk. In light of the inadequate number of processing facilities and inspectors, regulations need to be modified to protect the industry, health and safety of workers, and the nation’s food supply.  

1. See  Dianne Gallagher, Meat Processing Plants Acorrs the US are Closing Due to the Pandemic. Will Consumers Fell the Impact?, CNN Business (April 27, 2020).  See also  Danielle Kaeding, JBS USA Announces Temporary Closure of Green Bay Meatpacking Plant, Wisconsin Public Radio (April 26, 2020). See also National Farmers Union, April 22, 2020 Media Release: Covid-19 Shuts Down Half of Canada’s Beef Supply, https://www.nfu.ca/. While not the subject of the post, the issue is beginning to surface in poultry as well: workers in Georgia and Alabama have contracted the covid-19 virus, with some plant mangers sending employees home. A Vancouver chicken plant closed after 28 workers tested positive for Covid -19.

2. 21 C.F.R. § 601 et. al.

3. Amelia Lucas, Meatpacking Union says 25% of US Pork Production hit by Coronavirus Closures, CNBC (April 23, 2020). 

4.Taylor Telford and Kimberly Kindy, As they Rushed to Maintain U.S. Meat Supply, Big Processors saw Plants become Covid-19 Hot Spots, Worker Illnesses Spike, Washington Post, April 25, 2020.

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