Scott Bell, a rancher in Dolores, had to sell off 140 cow-calf pairs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the disease has rippled through the United States, it has shut down dozens of meat-processing plants across the country, leaving ranchers like Bell stuck with cattle they can’t move.
“Even if they’re operating at 105%, it’ll take them another two months to work through the backlog,” Bell said. “It’s a domino effect as well as everything else.”
Bell has had 152 head of cattle sitting on a feed lot in Nebraska since the beginning of May, eating a maintenance-level diet to keep their weight in the acceptable range for meat-processing plants. Until they are sold, which Bell says could take another month or longer, he will have to continue to resort to extreme measures to pay off bank loans that keep a modern ranching operation afloat.
“The cattle market, that’s just the way it is, it’s always up and down,” Bell said. “This is a harder one, it’s lasting more around the country.”
Bell’s cattle count for a fraction of the estimated 1 million head of cattle currently on a backlog to be slaughtered and brought to markets, said Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. All told, the NCBA estimated in mid-April that the beef industry would see a $13.6 billion loss in sales as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s been a tough couple of months, there’s no question about it,” Lane said.
Lawmakers in Washington are looking for solutions that would allow ranchers to sell their cattle.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture signed by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Ken Buck, R-Windsor, the lawmakers urged the federal agency “to provide more meat and poultry producers with direct access to the national commercial market” by reducing the need for federal inspectors.
They argued that reducing the number of federal inspectors would keep the risk of an outbreak of the coronavirus at processing plants lower and allow them to continue their work.
The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, originally introduced in 2016, would take this measure a step farther. Supported in the House by Tipton, the bill would permanently allow custom-exempt slaughter facilities – think those smaller butchers typically used for wild game or local farmers – to sell meat they process directly to restaurants, businesses and consumers.
“The pandemic has certainly driven this,” Tipton said in an interview. “We saw supply chains being interrupted in terms of being able to get goods, groceries into our supermarkets across the country. That kind of shines a bright light in terms of maybe some regulations that we need to be able to take a look at.”
Larry Don Suckla, Montezuma County commissioner, supports the bill, arguing it would allow for a kind of pressure valve for ranchers to send stock that wasn’t making it into the larger processing plants.
“There wouldn’t be such a backlog if we had thousands of small butchers scattered throughout the United States,” Suckla said. “They would never be able to feed everybody, but they would be able to take pressure off if there was a supply of beef coming into shortage.”
Suckla said it does not make sense for federal inspection to be necessary if a rancher brings a single cow for slaughtering at a local butcher.
“Right now, it’s illegal for me to take my beef and have it processed and for that meat processor to sell it, be from his place of business or for me to turn around and sell the beef,” Suckla said. “This regulation would kind of do away with that restriction, and you’d be able to get the meat directly to the butcher or the meat processor and then they could bring it onto the consumer as well.”
But some activists are worried about health issues that could arise without regular inspection, especially on a more industrial scale. Custom slaughterhouses are not required to receive routine federal inspection more than once a year, and animals that aren’t slaughtered for wider sale currently aren’t subject to federal inspection, leaving the potential for meat that ordinarily wouldn’t pass federal standards to reach restaurants and consumers.
“The hunter that goes out and brings the carcass to a custom slaughter processing plant and the meat goes back to that hunter and his family for his personal use, that’s totally different than what the PRIME Act is talking about,” said Dena Jones, director of the Farm Animal Program at the Animal Welfare Institute.
The Animal Welfare Institute has been outspoken against the PRIME Act since it was first introduced, and Jones argues it would do little more than allow inhumane slaughtering practices to go unpunished.
“If an animal has been killed in violation of humane slaughter laws, the inspector can take action,” Jones said. “In a custom plant, none of that happens. They just write up a little note saying this happened, but the plant isn’t penalized in any way.”
Jones isn’t the only one who doubts the PRIME Act is an effective way to solve strained supply chains. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Centennial, has also come out against the bill, saying it’s an ineffective solution to the present problem.
“This is well-intentioned on Congressman Tipton’s part and others to try and get some more capacity up and running,” Lane, the organization’s top lobbyist, said, “but we want to make sure we do that in a way that adds to capacity without diminishing food safety.”
Lane said custom facilities currently handle about 0.8% of all livestock slaughtering in the country and simply don’t have the ability to scale up and meet the present bottleneck.
Instead, Jones and Lane both propose creating a state-level inspection body that could allow for smaller processing plants to get meat inspected properly and still sold to the consumer while reducing the need for federal regulators. Currently, 27 states in the country have such a process in place.
“There’s a structure there that should make sense,” Lane said.
For ranchers like Bell, who sells about a tenth of his cattle to smaller processing plants every year to help small businesses, all that matters is that he can sell his cattle and continue operating his business as usual.
“Right now, we’ve got some in Monticello and we’ve got some in Farmington. We market them all over the place to these small places to try and keep them with some local business,” Bell said. “It’s happening to everybody, not just the cattle market. Everybody you talk to, it’s putting the clinch on them.”
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.