Meat processing bills gain steam, but labor still an issue

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carcasses hanging in cooler
Deer and beef carcasses hang in a cooler at Hepler's Meats, Oct. 8, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Lawmakers are trying to help the bottlenecked meat processing industry, but will it be enough to help packers catch up with demand?

Policy fixes are good, but above all else what meat processors need is help with labor, say meat science specialists with Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University.

“The core issue and solution is labor,” said Lyda Garcia, meat extension specialist in fresh meats at Ohio State University. “The other pieces are important, but without workers, you’re left up a creek.”

Local processing

Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, and Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced the Strengthening Local Processing Act, Dec. 18, the same bill introduced in the house by Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine, and Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, in September.

The Strengthening Local Processing Act would do a couple of things. First, it would increase the federal government’s cost-share for state meat and poultry inspection programs from 50% to 65% to encourage more states to start their own inspection programs. There are 27 states operating their own meat inspection programs, including Ohio.

Second, it would create two grant programs. One, funded at $10 million annually, would be for small processing plants to help with costs to meet state or federal inspection requirements or to expand to increase harvest or processing capacity. The other program, also to be funded at $10 million annually, would be to train butchers, plant operators and other processing employees to ease the labor shortage in the industry.

It would also increase federal cost sharing for the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program from 60% to 80%, increase small plant eligibility size from plants with 25 employees to plants with 50 employees, and create a searchable database of peer-reviewed studies for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP, plans to help first-timers create their own plan. An HACCP plan is a food safety plan often required in the food processing industry.

PRIME Act

It’s just one piece of legislation pitched to help bottlenecked meat processors and the small farmers that rely on them. The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption, or PRIME, Act received renewed attention from legislators and other supporters this year as well.

The PRIME Act would allow meat from animals processed at custom exempt shops to be sold directly to customers or wholesale within the state in which it was processed. It would do this by repealing the federal ban on the practice.

This could make a big difference for farmers in a state like Pennsylvania, which does not have a state meat inspection program. Meat processed at state-inspected facilities can be sold directly to customers within the state.

If a farmer in Pennsylvania wants to sell meat directly to customers by the cut, they must have the animal processed at a federally inspected shop. It limits where they can have animals processed and limits the amount of business a custom exempt shop can take on.

The PRIME Act has been floated around Congress since 2015, but has never made it past committee. Most recently, it was introduced in the house in May 2019, by Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, and in the senate by Independent Sen. Angus King, of Maine.

Since April, more than 25 lawmakers signed on as cosponsors of the house version of the bill. The majority are Republicans, but the bill does have bipartisan support.

The National Pork Producers Council spoke out against the PRIME Act, saying the federal inspection system or state equivalents are critical for ensuring food safety.

No simple answer

Regulations can be relaxed and money can be injected into the industry, but unless there are people there to do the work, it won’t make much of a difference.

“If we burn out our employees and they can’t do it anymore, we’re in trouble,” Garcia said.

Employees are the backbone of small processing plants, where much of the work is done by hand. The average hourly wage for meat packers is $13.68, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With physical hard work combined with a harsh environment of heat and humidity and cold, some may not see the pay to compensate enough.

On top of that, policy can’t fix the fact that small processing plants are not intended for efficiency when compared to large scale meat plants.

“The space requirements and inconsistent times producers request for aging carcasses causes issues with cooler space, bottlenecks in processing and increased space requirements when specialized orders are not picked up in a timely fashion,” said Jonathan Campbell, Penn State Extension meat specialist.

What’s next? What might fix the processing industry’s issues, then? The Strengthening Local Processing Act is on the right path, by putting money toward workforce training.

The key is not to think about issues separately from one another. Adding capacity to a plant might fix one issue, but it will bring up others, like finding qualified labor to work in that bigger plant. Deregulating may help farmers have more options of where to send their animals, but it won’t help processors speed up their systems.

Lynn Knipe, meat extension specialist in processed meats at Ohio State University, said some places may consider automating parts of their process with equipment. That could help smaller packers with labor shortages.

“This is a good time to start thinking outside the box by expanding their labor pool and cast the net a little wider, maybe look into hiring from minority groups or hiring formerly incarcerated people who have experience in the business,” Garcia said, referring to correctional facilities providing trainings for this type of trade.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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