Modernizing Food Policy Should be a PRIME Concern

Modernizing Food Policy Should be a PRIME Concern
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In a speech at Bradley University in September 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower told the crowd, “You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.”

Even though it was said 65 years ago, that statement rings strangely true for America’s agricultural sector, which is heavily regulated. Farmers face red tape and regulators at every turn, while consumers find grocery stores with meat and dairy shortages during the era of COVID-19. Even in 2021, consumers are seeing up to 6% yearly increases in beef prices, after a 9% increase in 2020.

In 2019, American farms accounted for more than 2.2 million jobs and added $136 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. However, agriculture is never at the forefront of our minds regarding public policy. This strange situation was the impetus behind a recently published John Locke Foundation study, Freedom To Farm: The Impacts of Agriculture Regulation On Production and Processing In The South.

This report, by Montana State University’s Dr. Vincent Smith, examines the structure and differences in seven southern states and the federal regulations that govern farms with dairy and cattle herds. It also describes and assesses regulations impacting dairy-processing facilities and slaughter facilities that process livestock into beef products. Of the seven states, five are coastal states — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and the other two are the adjacent “landlocked” states of Kentucky and Tennessee. 

Unsurprisingly, the report found that farmers in these states, especially small farms, were likely to be concerned about federal and state regulations restricting their access to local markets. And so begins a tale that is all too familiar across several sectors of the economy — the heavy hand of federal regulation on state governments.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is the federal agency responsible for inspections of meat-processing facilities. While states can technically set their own standards for meat inspection, any farm or facility that wants interstate sales must meet USDA standards. States are required to have standards “at least as effective” as the USDA for intrastate sales. Thus, the USDA dominates the market on meat processing.

How do we move past a regulatory framework that prevents farmers from getting meat and dairy to market while consumers have faced months of shortages? 

In 2017, Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. In June of this year, Congressman Massie and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) reintroduced this legislation as H.R. 3835. Currently, custom-exempt meat processors are exempt from state and federal inspection regulations to process meat for personal consumption if the individual who is bringing the animal in for processing is a partial or full-owner of the animal prior to processing. If a farmer owns the facility, then the farmer can process and consume his personal cow or hog without the USDA or state regulators interfering as long as he is not selling the meat to the public. The PRIME Act would have expanded the capacity of these facilities. 

According to the Carolina Farm Stewardship, the PRIME Act would allow “states to then pass their legislation that could open up custom-exempt facilities for commercial slaughter and/or processing.” Under the PRIME Act, these custom facilities would process slaughtered livestock, and farmers would sell the meat within their home states. Thus, consumers would have broader access to products they have seen shortages of in the past 18 months.

The Locke Foundation report found that five (of the seven) states studied have state inspection services, and two solely rely on federal inspection services. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia have state inspection services. Kentucky and Tennessee depend exclusively on the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA to inspect meat-processing plants in the state.

With bipartisan sponsorship, food policy seems to be a place where Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill might achieve something for the American public and alleviate some of the Covid-induced pains of the past 18 months. Unfortunately, the 117th Congress of the United States is not interested in the real-world problems of its citizens. Instead, the Pelosi-Schumer led Congress is focused on a pseudo-infrastructure bill that will explode federal spending, which is already astronomical. Instead, Congress could focus on our nation’s supply chain infrastructure and modernize our national food policies. The PRIME Act is a step in that direction and undeviatingly related to our food infrastructure.

There was a time when both political major political parties were concerned with governing the country. Unfortunately, today’s politicians are concerned with buying votes through handouts and staging political theater. However, a simple policy change, like the PRIME Act, would help people put some food on the table, and everyone should be able to agree to that.

Donald Bryson is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Savanna Phifer is operations associate with the John Locke Foundation.

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