A bill introduced this week by Sen. Angus King could ease a shortage of commercial meat-processing facilities in Maine, allowing more farmers to sell in-demand local meats to customers. The legislation, however, faces opposition from large-scale processors who say it undermines food safety.

King, an independent, co-sponsored a bill permitting individual states to allow beef, pork, goat and lamb processed at facilities that don’t face the most rigorous state or federal inspections to be sold to consumers, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores.

Currently, in order for meat to be marketable, animals must be slaughtered at one of five meat processors in Maine that are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or one of eight inspected by the state. Those facilities don’t have enough capacity to meet ever-growing demand for local foods. That makes it expensive and time-consuming for farmers to transport their animals, sometimes 100 miles or more across the state or even out of state, when they intend to sell the meat to their neighbors.

Farmers can have their animals processed at one of 15 custom slaughterhouses in Maine, but meat they process cannot be sold. It is for personal consumption only.

The bill, known as the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, or the PRIME Act, would give states the option of adjusting their rules and regulations to enable increased slaughter capacity within the state, which should create market opportunities for farmers.

Maine could use the exemption to allow more processing to take place at the custom slaughterhouses. They are licensed and inspected, but custom facilities are not required to have an inspector on site during processing. State and USDA facilities must have someone there at all times when animals are being processed.

The Senate bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, matches a bill introduced in the House last year by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

Ted Quaday, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the legislation was a “good first step” toward making it easier for farmers to sell meat locally. He praised the Maine delegation for introducing the legislation and taking leadership roles in the national local food movement.

“It’s important to get traction in both the House and Senate,” Quaday said. “It’s hard to move any piece of legislation in the environment they work in in Washington these days. These are the steps we have to take to build the good food movement in Maine and across the country.”

The legislation is expected to meet resistance from food safety groups and large meat processors.

The North American Meat Institute, a national trade association that represents large meat processors, opposes the legislation.

“North American Meat Institute members care about the wholesomeness of the food products they market to American consumers,” Eric Mittenthal, the trade group’s vice president of public affairs, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Federal inspection, or state inspection compliant with the same standards, plays a vital role in ensuring that outcome. Food safety standards should not be compromised for the convenience of a market segment.”

The bill addresses a significant roadblock that farmers face when trying to sell products locally, said Tori Jackson, associate professor with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension and author of a 2013 report stressing the need for more slaughterhouses.

Because of the time and costs associated with transporting animals for slaughter, most small producers cannot afford to sell their meat commercially. If custom slaughterhouses were permitted to process meat for consumption by the general public, more small farmers would likely try to sell their meat commercially, Jackson said.

“Meat processors have been hitting their heads against the wall over this issue for a number of years,” she said. “In the circles that I travel, this issue comes up every day in some form.”

The key component of the PRIME Act would expand an exemption in the current law that allows the custom slaughter of animals if the meat is for personal use. Under the expansion, states would be allowed to regulate the distribution of meat within state borders for commercial use. An exemption already exists for commercial poultry sales. The legislation would extend the exemption to other meat producers.

In a phone interview, King said the issue for him comes down to state’s rights.

“We’re talking about the state protecting the health and safety of its own citizens,” he said. “We believe in Maine we are capable of doing that.”

It’s also about economic opportunity. “Local agriculture is a bright spot in the Maine economy and one area that is growing. The average age of farmers is going down, and there are a lot of new small farms. We want to encourage that kind of growth,” he said.

The paucity of slaughterhouses is a common complaint among farmers statewide, King said. “I heard it from a chicken guy up in Aroostook County and people with goats down along the coast,” he said. “It’s a common refrain. This is a way of cutting through that and giving states the option to increase that capacity.”

Farmers praised the effort.

“I think it’s a great idea to put more agricultural control in the hands of the state in terms of both food and health,” said Aaron Bell, co-owner of Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmund in Down East Maine. “Whether it’s self-governance on issues such as raw milk or locally processed meats, let the states decide, let the local folks decide, instead of relying on people from far away.”

Carl Tabor, who raises and processes poultry in Berwick, agreed.

“I say leave it up to the states,” he said. “They know what’s going on.”


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