Tennessee Ranchers Get a Legal Boon
The Tennessee Meat and Poultry Inspection Act opens the door for more direct trade within the state
In April, Tennessee state legislators passed a new bill to open state run processing and inspection facilities for our own home-raised meat. As this bill comes into effect, not only is the University of Tennessee building a processing plant (and offering classes on butchery), but Walters State Community College in Morristown has begun its own butchery training program as well. The general trend is clear: trading meat within the state is about to get a lot easier.
“Every other state around us inspects their own meat,” says Senator Frank Niceley who footed the bill. Following in Tennessee’s footsteps, legislators in Oregon and Alaska are filing similar bills. The bill allows anyone who raises livestock for the sale of their meat can now go, on their own, to one of these facilities to have their product approved and processed instead of sending it to a federal facility for approval.
As a result, farmers can more easily sell directly to the consumer. Additionally, such things left in the hands of the state are easier to manage. Expounds Niceley, “If [an inspector] is a Federal jerk he’s hard to get rid of. If he’s a state jerk, we can get rid of him.”
Before the bill, selling retail meat was a clunky and complex process for many. The USDA had to approve all of it, and this generally meant a lot of time and diesel fuel going to waste. What often happens is trucks of cattle get sent to Kansas, stuffed into a feedlot where they are fed corn, slaughtered, processed, and then shipped back to the state as cuts of beef. That’s a lot of extra steps to eat food that was raised within a few hours' drive. “If everybody knew what a steer went through,” states Niceley, “They’d probably turn their heads from eating meat.”
Some farmers have made use of a loophole created by custom slaughterhouses. These are facilities where the owner of an animal can have them slaughtered and processed for personal use. Here, there are no official inspection standards, and all of the meat is labeled “Not For Sale.” To take advantage of this loophole, farmers sell customers shares of the animal before it is slaughtered.
However, Niceley states, “Generally law-abiding citizens just don’t want to play games with the law.” So, even with the custom house loophole, a majority of farmers were left without the means to trade directly. Raising livestock, especially cattle, can be prohibitively expensive. Selling product directly to customers is a great boon to ranchers in the state. Currently, the PRIME Act, which would allow these custom houses to process meat to be sold in retail, is attempting to make its way through Congress.
“The money’s there and the need’s there,” says James Gibson, at Crooked Fork Farms in Wartburg. Gibson notes that for the 2.1 million cattle across Tennessee, there are only about seventeen USDA processing facilities. Obviously, the federal government simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up. “It takes about one to three years to get an appointment at the USDA,” says Gibson. His hope is that the new bill will enable more farmers to open their own processing plants—he attempted to open one himself fairly recently and couldn’t obtain the funding. “You’ve got to have that big dollar to make that big dollar,” he laughs.
His two biggest questions regarding the bill were: One, will inspection at these new facilities allow farmers to sell to restaurants and schools? And two, will they be able to sell out of state? Niceley’s answers are one straightforward “yes,” and an “eventually,” respectively. The goal as a whole is to “make it easier for farmers to sell meat locally,” he expounds, but joining an interstate compact of meat providers is likely to take another year or two.
Will Mayes, at ZWT Ranch in Crossville, has a less immediate interest in the bill’s passing but still remains hopeful. “We own part of a feed yard in Nebraska,” says Mayes, explaining that this was the best business decision for his ranch under the previous laws. His ranch was one that shipped their cattle to the west, had them processed and inspected, and sent back in cuts. “We feed them where the corn is,” he states. However, Mayes agrees that the bill will help locally, and if many more processing facilities open, ZWT Ranch will be changing its “marketing strategy.”
THE POWER OF THE STATE
By federal law, state inspection standards cannot be less restrictive than federal inspection standards—only more so. Therefore, the quality of meat we raise at home and buy from our farmers can only improve. If any problems arise, the smaller and more focused state legislators are able to handle them rather swiftly. Over the past few years, Niceley has been passing many bills that place more power in the hands of our elected state officials, and ourselves.
Most recently, these have included a bill to prevent the Chinese Government from buying Tennessee land (a massive problem in the midwest), another to allow our state treasury to buy silver and gold (in case our federal currency fails), and another protecting private property rights going forward in direct contempt of the United Nations’ Agenda 21. “We’re in the throes of divorce with our federal government,” tells Niceley. “We won’t secede, but they’re not keeping up their end of the bargain, and we’re easing away from them.”
The Tennessee Meat and Poultry Products Act—as well as Niceley’s Food Freedom Act from last year—work in tandem to ensure that everyone in our state has access to healthy, affordable food regardless of whatever else may occur in the rest of the country. While the Food Freedom Act applies only to shelf-stable goods, this new law will provide easy pathways for our livestock farmers’ continued existence and the entire industry’s growth.
With universities like UT and Walters States getting on board immediately, we can count on incoming workers to take up the reins as time goes on. “Local food really jumped during Covid,” says Niceley, and that only makes sense. Grocery stores were being picked clean and our supply chains were so disrupted that organic food at a farmer’s market was comparably priced to conventional supermarket faire. Niceley hopes to keep pushing that trend forward, in support of a well-fed, healthy population and a bustling state economy. “All those things together should start helping local meat production,” he concludes.