Staff Columnist

Deregulate meat to bolster Iowa's local food systems

Federal regulations give huge power to a small number of meat processing companies

Dale Allers (left) and his brother, Kenneth, are shown at work cutting meat. In addition to operating a grocery store in
Dale Allers (left) and his brother, Kenneth, are shown at work cutting meat. In addition to operating a grocery store in Keystone, Iowa as they have for 41 years, the brothers own a locker plant and slaughterhouse where they do custom work for farmers and locker owners. September, 1981. (City of Keystone)

The coronavirus crisis has brought new attention to our nation’s food-supply chain.

Americans are encountering higher prices and shortages, especially for meat, driven in part by COVID-19 outbreaks at large processing plants in Iowa and neighboring states. Many observers have pointed out how market concentration — a small number of companies controlling a huge portion of the market — has set up the system for failure.

There is a long and growing list of politicians who are calling for a federal investigation into suspected price fixing, including Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and U.S. Rep. Steve King.

The meat market oligopoly is not the result of unfettered free-market capitalism. To the contrary, growing federal intervention over several decades has given enormous power to a small number of market giants.

How Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is slashing regulations to fight COVID-19

Some advocates are renewing their criticism of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which set standards for meat inspection programs with which each state must comply. Before the law’s passage, there were as many as 10,000 slaughterhouses in the United States.

The number of slaughtering facilities fell sharply after the regulations were adopted, a foreseeable consequence of expanding federal regulatory authority. There now are about 10 percent as many slaughterhouses as there were in 1967, even as the U.S. population has grown by about 60 percent since then.

Such laws are a boon for big business. Regulations are expensive to comply with, and large enterprises with efficiencies of scale are better prepared to sustain the costs. Small businesses — without lawyers, safety engineers or capital improvement budgets — have two bad options: defy the regulations and risk it on the black market, or forfeit their sliver of the market to one of the big guys.

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Counterintuitive as it may be, big businesses often lobby for the preservation of heavy-handed regulations. In this case, it’s small producers and farm-to-table food advocates who are pushing to roll back the overbearing federal regulatory regime.

The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption — or PRIME — Act is a bill in Congress to exempt small slaughterhouses from compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rules. If it were passed into law, meat could be sold from producers to consumers in the same state under state regulations.

This is not the work of right-wing preppers or left-wing hippies — not either group alone, at least. The bill’s supporters are as ideologically diverse as Iowa Republican Steve King and Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib. It’s a Republican bill, but it has attracted seven Democratic co-sponsors in the House, and liberal-leaning independent Sen. Angus King as a co-sponsor in the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican and lead sponsor of the PRIME Act, posted a photo on Twitter last week of a depleted grocery store meat cooler. He wrote, “The tragic irony is this is just a few miles from beef cattle in the field. Overregulation has allowed 4 companies (2 are foreign) to monopolize 80% of US meat processing.”

With the Wholesome Meat Act, the federal government overstepped its constitutionally limited authority. While the feds have power under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, the meat inspection rules apply to products sold within state lines, even among neighbors.

Reining in those crony regulations would help give rise to revitalized and bustling local food networks in every state in the nation. An impending national food shortage is the perfect time to unleash the potential of our farmers and local food systems.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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