“America’s Slaughterhouse Mess”

When Americans grumble about how our food system is broken, the slaughter and processing of farm animals are often at the heart of their critiques. One hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair’s damning novel, The Jungle, exposed many gruesome and unsanitary practices in the food system of his day. A host of important federal food-safety regulations, including mandatory inspections, soon followed.

This is an excerpt from Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (September, 2016) by Baylen J. Linnekin.

But that was hardly the end of the story. Instead, attention to livestock slaughter has only grown in recent years. In 2014, for example, I moderated a panel at Harvard Law School on sustainable meat production as part of a conference called “The Meat We Eat.” The conference was cosponsored by two Harvard Law student groups—the Food Law Society, the first of many similar student groups that have popped up at law schools around the country in recent years, and the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. The title of my panel—“Reducing Legal Barriers, Empowering Consumers, and Creating Pathways for Sustainably and Humanely Raised Meat”—nicely encapsulates the obstacles that many farmers, consumers, and others face in their efforts to sell, buy, and eat the type of meat they want. Many of these obstacles are the result of a mandatory food-safety inspection system, administered by the USDA, that is deeply flawed.

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Today’s USDA food-safety rules require that agency inspectors be present at a facility every day that meat is processed. In 2007, though, stunning reports emerged that USDA inspectors had failed to inspect hundreds of plants regularly, as required, for thirty years. Although the agency’s failure to inspect hundreds of facilities regularly for three decades is outrageous, even that fact doesn’t illustrate the broken state of the agency’s food-safety rules quite as well as does the closure of a Petaluma, California slaughterhouse in 2014. That year, the USDA suddenly forced Rancho Feeding Corporation—the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse in Northern California—to close. An agency investigation indicated the facility had illegally processed cattle that were suffering from cancer.

The presence of cancerous meat led the USDA to order the recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef processed by Rancho. The agency was clearly justified in taking any cancerous meat—which was disgusting at best and which could pose food-safety problems at worst—out of the food supply. By also ordering the recall of millions of pounds of beef that was entirely wholesome, though, the agency was throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Worse still, as I’ll explain, the USDA’s own food-safety rules were largely to blame for the agency’s decision to order the destruction of perfectly good meat.

USDA rules often force small, sustainable farmers to ship animals hundreds of miles away—even out of state—to be slaughtered.

One morning in 2009, when I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was studying  agricultural and food law, I jogged by a pair of cattle dining on grass in a fenced pasture a couple blocks from my apartment. As I slowed down to take a look at them, I noticed some flyers attached to the fencing along the roadside. I stopped running and grabbed a flyer. Sure enough, these cattle or parts of them, at least— would soon be for sale in fifty-pound boxes. After I finished my jog, I called the phone number on the flyers. Another phone call, a few emails, and a week or two later, I was the proud owner of a box of steaks and other cuts raised by Tommy Daniel, a recently retired professor of crop, soil, and environmental sciences at the University of Arkansas.

You’d think that these cattle, raised lovingly and openly in a pasture a block from the main intersection in a college town, might be spared the indignity of enduring a road trip to meet their end at a far-off processing plant. They’d be killed locally and sold to people like me. You’d be wrong. Though Prof. Daniel’s cows lived out their days in a pasture only two blocks from my home, that fact hides the journey they—and animals like them around the country—face if they’re to become dinner. Prof. Daniel had to send his cows only sixty miles to be slaughtered. Other farmers—and their livestock—aren’t so lucky. USDA rules often force small, sustainable farmers to ship animals hundreds of miles away—even out of state—to be slaughtered and processed alongside animals that were raised without the same care. That’s because USDA rules unnaturally amalgamate animals from farmers and ranchers of all types and sizes—from cattle raised on the smallest grass-fed beef farm to those raised on the nation’s largest confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—into many of the same USDA-approved slaughterhouses. This is largely true because rules are uncaring, and because there simply aren’t enough slaughterhouses to meet demand.

“When I take my animals to be processed, I drive past a custom facility three miles from my house and travel three hours to a USDA facility.”

There are more than 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, according to recent USDA data. Another 1,800 are operated by states or are “custom” slaughterhouses—where sales are severely restricted to prohibit, for example, sales to grocers. But figures showing a proliferation of custom slaughterhouses are misleading. The thirteen largest U.S. cattle slaughterhouses account for 56 percent of all cattle killed in this country. The figures are similar for hogs (twelve plants account for 57 percent of all slaughters) and other livestock. Commercial plants processed 47.3 billion pounds of red meat (including cattle, pork, sheep, and other hooved animals) in 2014.

USDA requirements for slaughterhouses the agency inspects are part of the problem. They’re so complex that the agency itself funded a report in 2012 for the purpose of establishing “a streamlined regulatory proposal that could be carried forward in future years to make the USDA inspection system less onerous to smaller facilities that could perceivably be built or utilized in more small local communities.” That sounds great. But the report writers concluded that their mission was damn near futile. “After the numerous conversations and meetings, it became apparent that no one with the USDA or . . . working as professionals within the meat industry,” they write, “believe[s] that streamlining regulations will ever occur.”

On-farm slaughter accounted for just 93.4 million pounds of red meat—or a paltry 0.2 percent of meat slaughtered commercially.

Despite this dire conclusion, small farmers do have some choices for operating outside of the USDA system. But these choices come with serious drawbacks. A 2013 report by the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review detailed the problem. Farmers and ranchers are free to use slaughterhouses that are not inspected by the USDA. But meat from animals slaughtered there “must be sold to the consumer before it is butchered.” That means consumers must buy cow, not beef. And they often have to buy hundreds of pounds at a time. “Since a steer yields about 400 pounds of meat, that’s often too much for a single family,” reported the Spokesman-Review. “Several families can go together to purchase an animal, but that’s more hassle for the rancher. And it doesn’t address the needs of individuals who just want to purchase a few steaks or some ground chuck.”

This helps explain why on-farm slaughter accounted for just 93.4 million pounds of red meat—or a paltry 0.2 percent of meat slaughtered commercially. This figure includes mobile slaughterhouses, vehicles that travel to farms to slaughter livestock without forcing them to undergo the discomfort and stress required by lengthy travel. All of this helps explain why Rancho was the only independent USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in all of Northern California in 2014. It also explains why most small cattle farmers are forced to use USDA facilities and pass up the local slaughterhouse. Some even literally drive by the latter on their way to the former. “I’m a beef farmer myself,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told me in 2015, “and when I take my animals to be processed, I drive past a custom facility three miles from my house and travel three hours to a USDA facility.”

He’s out almost $400,000 even though the hundreds of his cattle that Rancho slaughtered were cancer-free.

How did we get to this point? As the Washington Post reported in 2010, the “processing, marketing and distribution networks that once made small farming viable . . . disintegrated in the last 30 years as U.S. agriculture went through a dramatic consolidation.” This dramatic decline has occurred even as “demand for pasture-raised niche meats is soaring,” reported USA Today that same year. In other words, the demand for niche meats is rising fast, but supply is being suppressed artificially by the lack of slaughterhouses.

These problems aren’t just evident with cattle and pig slaughter. Consider poultry. Small farmers can slaughter up to 20,000 of their own chickens in a year. And if you’re raising and slaughtering that many birds, chances are you can justify the cost of investing in your own processing facility. But very small operations can’t afford to do so. And that hurts the smallest poultry farmers, because slaughterhouses are often difficult to find. For example, Massachusetts lacks a USDA-approved poultry slaughter facility.

That program is a bad one for small, sustainable farmers and consumers.

The impact of limiting where animals can be slaughtered has real world consequences beyond mere inconvenience, including the Rancho recall. The USDA’s mandatory recall ensnared not only cancerous cattle processed from (and by) a few bad actors but also that of every other producer who’d had an animal slaughtered in the Rancho plant in the past year—out of what the San Francisco Chronicle termed “an abundance of caution . . . to make sure none of the cancerous meat commingled with healthful beef.” That includes cattle sent to Rancho by celebrated grass-fed farmer Bill Niman, who told the Chronicle that he’s out almost $400,000 even though the hundreds of his cattle that Rancho slaughtered were cancer-free and he could prove to the USDA that those cattle were not commingled with the diseased meat. Niman’s wife, Nicolette, an environmental law attorney and author of the book Righteous Porkchop, penned an excellent New York Times op-ed lamenting the recall as an overbroad reaction akin to chopping down hundreds of different orchards thanks to one bad apple. “The Agriculture Department’s tools for safeguarding the nation’s meat supply are blunt and clumsy instruments, especially when dealing with independent farmers,” she wrote. These USDA policies aren’t just stupid—they’re also reckless. And the alleged “abundance of caution” the department claims to be exercising now—after the fact—is entirely the result of its own recklessness.

The Rancho recall is part of a much larger problem that’s existed for decades in the USDA inspection process. That program is a bad one for small, sustainable farmers and consumers. As you’ll learn in chapter 5, the USDA inspection program is now under fire from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress who support small farmers, including some, such as Rep. Massie, who are themselves small farmers. As you’ll learn, Rep. Massie, a Republican, and Democratic colleagues such as Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Jared Polis (D-CO), have cosponsored a bill that would permit farmers to expand options for selling meat locally that’s been processed by local slaughterhouses.

Although USDA food-safety rules make selling sustainably raised meat a tough slog, you’re about to learn that state and local food-safety rules are often no less complicated. Food-safety rules that govern the sale of fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, and other foods you buy at farmers markets and other local outlets can make doing business difficult— or impossible—for local farmers.

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Baylen J. Linnekin is a food lawyer, scholar, expert witness, adjunct law professor, and Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund board member. Linnekin’s first book, Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island Press, 2016), reveals how regulations often proscribe sustainable food practices. Linnekin’s writings have appeared in the Boston Globe, N.Y. Post, Des Moines Register, Sacramento Bee, Reason, Huffington Post, VICE, Playboy, Wisconsin Law Review, Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Chapman University Law Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle with his partner of more than 20 years.