Merkley, Thune Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Support America’s Small Food Processors

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) today introduced the Strengthening Local Processing Act, bipartisan legislation that would provide much-needed federal support to America’s small meat and poultry processors and help strengthen and streamline their operations. The legislation would give small food processors more access to information that is critical to food safety planning, allow more inspector-approved meat products to be sold across state lines, and funnel federal dollars toward training, education, and technical assistance grants. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) are original co-sponsors of this legislation.

“Dedicated workers across our food supply chains in every corner of our country work hard to ensure that when we go to our local grocery stores, there will be plenty of food on the shelves for our families,” said Merkley. “But now—as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend every aspect of our economy—our food processors, especially small plants that have been hit particularly hard, need help. This bipartisan bill would help provide these plants with valuable support, while also strengthening our food safety inspections and cutting red tape.”

“The pandemic has created significant challenges to our nation’s food supply chain, especially when it comes to meat processing capacity,” said Thune. “South Dakota’s producers work hard to raise high-quality livestock, and we need to invest in expanding processing capacity to help meet consumer demand for their products. I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to support small meatpackers and to create additional marketing options for livestock producers.” 

“The supply chain disruptions and restaurant closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have placed increasing financial pressure on Maine’s rural farming communities, including our small farms that raise livestock,” said Collins.  “This bipartisan bill would provide some relief by clearing unnecessary, bureaucratic hurdles, which would ensure that the livestock raised in Maine can also be processed right here in our state by local, family-owned food processors and butchers.”

“Maine’s small family farms and meat and poultry processors are key building blocks of communities across our state, providing healthy, locally raised meat for their neighbors and making important contributions to the local economy,” said King. “I’m proud to work with Senators Thune and Merkley to empower small processors to do their jobs and grow their businesses. It’s our hope that this legislation will act as a helping hand in these difficult times by directing resources and investments to where they can do much good and bolster local economies around the country.”

The Strengthening Local Processing Act would require the Food Safety Inspection Service to establish a searchable database of peer-reviewed, publicly available studies to establish and maintain Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans. This step would help small food processors develop their own HACCP plans and help expedite the HACCP approval process.

To incentivize more states to establish meat and poultry inspection programs—which small food processors need to approve their products—the legislation would increase the federal government’s cost-share for the programs from 50 percent to 65 percent. The bill would also allow state-inspected meat facilities to operate as federal inspection facilities, allowing more small and local processors to ship their products to other states and countries.

Lastly, the Strengthening Local Processing Act would create a grant program to support small plants by providing reimbursement grants to help cover costs associated with meeting state or federal inspection guidelines, expanding infrastructure to establish or increase harvest and processing capacity, and adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and future market needs.

To meet education and training needs in the processing industry, the bill would also establish training grants to support and train small plant operators, small plant employees, and the next generation of meat processors and butchers. And $10 million would be authorized in discretionary funding for higher education training and processor career training.

“The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition thanks Senator Merkley and Senator Thune for introducing the Strengthening Local Processing Act. Small plants play a critical role in ensuring farmers and ranchers are able to process their products, especially during the increase in demand for more local and regional meat and poultry during the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill is a strong step towards ensuring scale-appropriate regulations and support for small plants that maintain and pursue federal and state inspection,” said Kelly Nuckolls, Policy Specialist, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

“The programs created and increased in this bill are absolutely necessary for the safe processing and distribution of meat in our nation.  As we have seen in the past year, relying on large consolidated meat processing facilities to dominate our domestic markets leave consumers at dangerous risk of losing access to safe, clean meat from the local ranchers who produce it.  It is important to support and expand small and mid-scale harvest and processing, in order to maintain the safe pipeline for ranchers to access local markets, and for consumers to access local meat.  We are in danger of losing many of the small plants in our country, as they have been dwarfed by a few giants, who have worked to control the markets, building monopolies and controlling prices.  When those giant plants could not adequately protect employees from the Covid-19 virus, consumers were left with empty shelves and empty pantries, with far-too-limited options for accessing local producers. Supporting the reinvigoration of local meat processing provides more food security for both the community of consumers as well as the ranchers and their communities.  This bill would help to rebuild and increase that capacity,” Ben Meyer, co-owner at Revel Meat Company, based in Canby, Ore.

“Based on NMPAN’s 12 years of research, education, and providing technical assistance related to the viability of small and mid-scale meat processors, our organization finds that the provisions of the proposed “Strengthening Local Processing Act” are thoughtfully designed and will address persistent challenges that our processor members frequently share with us. We think it gets at some of the core and complex challenges in the sector that many other bills have not addressed. We believe it can make a positive impact,” said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Director of the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, part of Oregon State University. 

A summary of the Strengthening Local Processing Act can be found here. Full text of the legislation is available here.