Wyoming law allows consumers to bypass meat case for ranch gate
Wyoming Rep. Tyler Lindholm’s new law expands the state’s Food Freedom Act to include red meat, allowing ranch-to-consumer beef available through herd shares. This move is intended to make local beef more accessible, support state-inspected processing facilities as well as beef producers currently weathering record low prices.
A Republican lawmaker and a Sundance, Wyo., rancher himself, in his first year in office, Lindholm introduced the Wyoming Food Freedom Act. Enacted in 2015, the law allows some homemade food to be sold without inspection at farmers’ markets or directly off the farm, ranch, or home kitchen.
Some products are not included in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, including poultry. Under the USDA’s Poultry Products Inspection Act, a poultry producer may raise and sell chicken without inspection so long as the number slaughtered remains below 1,000 birds. However, beef, pork, lamb and goat all fall under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, written in 1906, and must be processed in a facility inspected by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector. Wyoming, he said, where beef is king, isn’t a chicken state and he continued to seek creative solutions to create access to local beef.
Milk shares allow consumers to purchase raw milk, illegal in all but 11 states, through a herd share agreement. The contract between consumer and producer allows for the owner of the herd share to obtain milk so long as it carries a warning label stating that the milk is not pasteurized and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is notified by the producer that raw milk is produced on the premises.
Lindholm followed the model of raw milk dairies to make local beef more available to consumers, knowing that the process of licensing and labeling for retail sale is a complicated process and can be a barrier for consumers and producers alike. With the bill signed by Gov. Mark Gordon, the timing is positive, allowing consumers to bypass the meat case for the ranch gate.
“That’s what the Food Freedom Act has always been all about,” he said. “Producers selling directly to consumers without licensing, labeling or inspection. Red meat has always been a trick to get there.”
The law meets the exemption under Section 623 of the Federal Meat Inspection Act that allows producers to consume red meat they own and raise as share owners own a share of the herd and are not technically paying for meat but for the care of the cattle and delivery of the meat.
“It really opened the door,” he said. “I fully understand that the intent of the Federal Meat Inspection Act exemption is to allow owners to eat their own product and they were imagining me and you as ranchers eating our own beef so they were more than willing to turn a blind eye to that.”
The number of shares sold is not limited and because shareholders become owners before slaughter, the exemption is met and shareholders are able to pick up as much or as little meat as they wish rather than purchasing a whole, half or quarter. Purchasing such a large amount of meat, he said, is arguably a price barrier for some who certainly still desire and deserve access to locally raised beef. Smaller amounts of beef also eliminate the need for large amounts of freezer space, another obstacle for many.
In the process of drafting the law, Lindholm sought counsel regarding whether reporting requirements or standardized forms ought to be required. In the end, he said, he rejected those based on the predication that a rancher serious about offering herd shares will create their own system. That being said, Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is drafting standardized share language that will be available for use.
“While Wyoming put in the statute this can happen, technically you could do this in any state,” he said. “By the Federal Meat Inspection Act exemption, you could do this. My advice — I like having the backup of state protection and having a regulatory agency that understands the intent of their legislature. My recommendation would be for other states to pass a like law to ensure their consumers are protected.”
Lindholm’s state is home to three USDA-inspected processing facilities and he said he didn’t hear any negative feedback from those operators. He believes it is a stepping-stone for producers who are considering offering retail beef to “dip their toe in the water” and make the decision of continuing on a larger scale using a federally inspected facility. In Wyoming, state inspected facilities can process meat for retail if it doesn’t leave the state.
“I think the reason no one came forward against it is they do view it as a way to get more producers engaged in the system and there will be merit in the long run of going to a license and label-type scenario because at that point, you can retail sell your product and get it into restaurants and grocery stores,” he said.
One processor said the new law has the potential to affect the bottom lines of the state’s federal- and state-inspected facilities. Kate Miller, a tenured food industry analyst said the move is an interesting one and the connection between consumers and ranchers is positive if the products do not make their way into trade or retail streams. A food service or retail outlet, she said, requires a different set of inspections and insurance requirements, making it more important that the process is controlled closely through the share system. A deregulation of the inspection process or non-federally inspected products ending up in the export line would be devastating to trade and food safety.
“I like the model,” she said. “It works and it solves a ranch problem and a local meat marketing problem while preventing a larger issue.”
It is an opportunity, Lindholm said, for producers willing to feed cattle to their endpoint to add a revenue stream to the operation that can be expanded at a later date to include licensing and labeling for retail sale. It is a boon, too, to the small town, state inspected processors to increase revenue and potentially even expand.
Korry Lewis said her mom, the late Rep. Kimmi Lewis, R-Kim, encouraged the Colorado Legislature to study this concept while she was in office. Lewis, who owns Meet America, Inc., a direct to consumer beef company, said she’s pleased Wyoming has pioneered the law, and hopes Colorado will follow suit. Lewis has been an avid supporter of connecting consumers and producers and said this law will also alleviate pressure on the few USDA-inspected slaughter plants in Colorado, which small meat companies like hers depend upon.
“It’s a good example of small business self-regulating and people being able to support their local communities,” he said. “It’s been rad to watch and I’m hoping this law expanding our Food Freedom Act to include red meat shows an even larger expansion of local foods.”