Farm to table isn't as simple as it sounds, thanks to the federal government.
Federal rules control most of the action, particularly regarding food safety. But an unusual left-right congressional coalition hopes to change things.
Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a liberal Maine Democrat, are championing legislation they say would make it easier for small-time ranchers to sell their prime rib, pork chops and lamb shanks at farmers' markets and other small scale operations.
Massie is hoping the House can vote on the plan later this week as part of a sweeping farm policy bill.
Under the proposal, which faces opposition from the meat industry, beef, pork and lamb producers could sell meat — within their states — that has been processed in smaller "custom slaughterhouses" regulated by states, but don't have federal meat inspectors routinely on duty.
Massie and Pingree argue that small producers are hampered by federal inspection requirements that require them to send their animals to large, but limited, USDA-inspected processing facilities if they want to sell their products.
Current law allows livestock to be slaughtered at a local custom slaughterhouse, but only if the meat is restricted to personal, household, guest or employee use. There is one loophole, but that requires the purchaser to buy a fraction of the live animal before it was slaughtered.
"At every stage, we've introduced a hurdle for the small farmer," said Massie, who has pushed the legislation since 2015 and is also seeking a farm bill amendment to make it easier for farms to sell raw, unpasteurized milk. "The current laws make it really hard for farmers to sell directly to consumers."
He noted that preservationists and communities worried about farmland being lost to suburbia have pushed for zoning laws, conservation easements and tax provisions to save struggling farms.
"But really what the farms need is a profitable business model," Massie said. "I've had enough exposure to know the challenges that farmers are facing and I'm trying to make it easier for them to be successful."
Massie and his family raise about 60 head of cattle on 60 acres and use both a local processor about three miles away and the most convenient USDA slaughterhouse — three hours away. Both sources, he said, are safe.
"When somebody eats the beef, whether I use the processor three miles from my house, or three hours from my house, it's the same beef and it's the same quality and no one has ever gotten ill from either," he said.
But critics say the measure, known as the PRIME Act or Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, would allow meat that hasn't been inspected to reach the public.
"Despite what these advocates want to believe, bacteria don’t distinguish between large and small facilities," said Eric Mittenthal, vice president for public affairs at the North American Meat Institute, which represents U.S. packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey. "In order to have the safest food system possible, the same food safety standards should be followed by everyone."
The advocacy group Food & Water Watch, which opposes factory farming, opposes Massie's legislation. It would "open the door to products in the marketplace that haven't been inspected," said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the group's food program.
But the legislation does have the enthusiastic support of small farmer groups such as the Texas-based Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which is urging its members to call Congress and support the provision in the farm bill. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund says the plan would help small-scale livestock producers who find themselves unable to secure ready access to a USDA slaughterhouse.
"This has the potential to be a boon for an industry that is struggling," said fund president Elizabeth Rich.
The massive farm bill already faces considerable hurdles. A coalition of conservative groups has lambasted the measure for not cutting back what it says are wasteful subsidies. Democrats oppose provisions that would extend to age 59 the requirement that adults work or participate in job training or educational activities as a prerequisite to obtaining food stamps.
The work provisions could complicate passage in the Senate, but the legislation is expected to get a critical boost from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wants to put a bid to legalize hemp across the United States into the farm bill.
McConnell's Kentucky colleagues are also looking to put hemp provisions into the House version, with Massie filing an amendment that would exclude industrial hemp from the definition of "marijuana."