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Caveat Emptor

The appeal of Thomas Massie and Joel Salatin is to the responsible and self-reliant.

(Photo by Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The goal is backyard chickens, ducks, and goats, and a chest freezer big enough for half a cow. Maybe someday the goal will grow, and become something like what Kentucky’s Rep. Thomas Massie has: an off-the-grid square of the Shire, nestled in a local, largely self-sufficient community, semi-hidden from the lidless eye upon the Potomac. The response to Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, the related inflation—the last few years have given anyone who shops for groceries some things to think about. Food security is not guaranteed; supply chains are fragile. Americans are fat, their bodies starving and susceptible to disease even as they never cease from eating. For health, quality matters, too. I would like the chance to do something about it, for me and my family. 

Rep. Massie would like Americans to have that opportunity, too. The PRIME Act (Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act) is probably his signature legislative proposal, expanding the exemption from federal inspection requirements of custom animal slaughter. While currently small livestock farmers are subject to the same regulatory regime as the four giants that dominate the American—and increasingly global—meat production industry, the PRIME Act would allow small-scale operators to process their animals at local custom butcheries subject to state law instead of the large-scale slaughterhouses that have the means to facilitate federal USDA inspection. At the moment, while a farmer friend can give me a cut of custom processed meat as a guest gift, he cannot sell it to me unless it has been slaughtered under USDA inspection—forcing him to compete directly with the oligopoly—never mind my trust in him. 


As a sensible piece of discrete legislation focused on federalism and scale even as it hopes to be conducive to health and prosperity, the PRIME Act should be passed. Of course, put that way it sounds unlikely. The bill’s status and the discussion of the proposal in a recent congressional hearing illustrate in microcosm why nothing useful ever seems to get done in Washington. 

Though it has collected a host of cosponsors each time it has been introduced, the PRIME Act remains in typical Capitol Hill limbo. Most recently the House Committee on Agriculture referred it to the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry. That was a month ago. But on Tuesday, taking advantage of his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative State, Regulatory Reform, and Antitrust, Massie arranged for further public discussion of his proposal. The hearing, titled “Where’s the Beef? Regulatory Barriers to Entry and Competition in Meat Processing,” gave opportunity for witness testimony from a number of small-scale meat processors, including Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, a celebrity in the regenerative agriculture world.  

Massie was early for the 10 a.m. hearing, greeting witnesses and their family members before settling down to work beneath the weirdly apocalyptic portrait of former Rep. Bob Goodlatte that supervises committee proceedings from the wall. Salatin walked in looking like a cross between Russell Kirk and Barry Goldwater, joining his equally picturesque fellow witnesses—Rosanna Bauman, a Mennonite poultry farmer; Joe Trotter, of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Greg Gunthorp, a heritage breed pig farmer. Setting the mostly collegial if sometimes sarcastic tone of the morning’s discussion, Massie quoted from President Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address, where he said, 

When corporations have to compete, their profits go up and your prices go up — when they don’t have to compete.

Small businesses and family farmers and ranchers — I need not tell some of my Republican friends from those states — guess what? You got four basic meatpacking facilities. That’s it. You play with them or you don’t get to play at all. And you pay a hell of a lot more — a hell of a lot more because there’s only four.

Massie’s case was simple: Explicitly, the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 needlessly undercut federalism by requiring state regulations of the meat packing industry to at least equal federal requirements; implicitly, it also undercut competition by giving national and multinational conglomerates already operating by or even setting federal standards an advantage and raising barriers to entry; in conclusion, expanding exceptions to allow states to set their own standards for custom slaughterhouses would permit small and localized operations to flourish and mitigate the uncompetitive market concentration that characterizes meat processing. This wouldn’t create a negative change in safety for consumers because states and operators selling directly to customers both have incentives to maintain appropriate standards. It would create more and better choices for Americans concerned about what they eat and where it comes from. 


If Massie was making the Administrative State and Regulatory Reform argument for the PRIME Act, New York’s Rep. Jerry Nadler set up an Antitrust case against it in his own opening remarks. The meatpacking industry, across the board, exhibits “massive concentration and consolidation of power in just a few hands,” Nadler said. He mentioned Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle, as is obligatory. He explained that animal processing in America was almost equally concentrated at the opening of the previous century, that what were five firms then are four now. Nadler called for a rollback of the mergers that had created this condition and decried “rolling back meat inspection requirements.” His staff counsel wore a highlighter pink pantsuit. Dismissing the PRIME Act, he said Congress must not inject risk into the American food safety system without addressing the root problem of consolidation.

Salatin and the other witnesses gave variations on the same theme, namely that the regulatory burden is felt much more heavily by small operations than large. For Salatin, who made no effort to hide his small-government libertarianism to appeal to the Democrats on the subcommittee, the lack of competition or choice in American meat processing is explicitly not an antitrust issue but a regulatory one, as “entrepreneurs are enslaved and held hostage” to months-long inspection processes and the whims of inspectors. This suggests that regulations are not about safety, but about market access. “Few human decisions speak to freedom like what we have a right to swallow,” he said at one point. “Our nation’s founders could not have imagined a time when neighbors could not exchange chuck roast or sausage.” 

His fellows on the panel were less straightforwardly ideological. Bauman the poultry farmer said the American justice system is an inverse of the current inspection regime, in which there is a presumption of guilt and contamination and no division between prosecutor, jury, and judge. ALEC’s Trotter emphasized the consumer costs and fragility of centralization, as each foodborne illness outbreak and recall under the current concentrated arrangement has massive market-wide effects, emptying shelves and raising prices. Gunthorp, apparently present at the invitation of Democratic members of the subcommittee, came across as eminently reasonable, a practiced representative of his industry. He distinguished between the regulatory standards themselves and the federal USDA process of enforcement, suggesting the latter is largely where the difficulty for small plants lies. Gunthorp refused to let the examination period pit regulatory reform opportunities against antitrust action, describing USDA inspection as a hill small processors climb only to see the mountain of fair market access on the other side. He was present to suggest a whole slate of additional industry interventions, from subsidy reform to truth in labeling laws. 

The stage was set, then, after all opening statements had been made Tuesday morning, for a cooperative discussion of the American meat processing industry’s problems and the role the PRIME Act might play in addressing the difficulties of small operators. Indeed, that was a conversation Maryland Democrat Rep. Glenn Ivey suggested that the subcommittee on Administrative State, Regulatory Reform, and Antitrust have in his brief comments, confessing he did not have agricultural constituents in his suburban district. Instead, what played out was highly predictable. Ivey’s fellow Democrats accused the PRIME Act of jeopardizing consumer safety, and endlessly repeating the same oligopoly statistics in each one’s turn for a C-SPAN clip asserted antitrust was the only action that should be under discussion. Gunthorp’s attempts to nuance the question were met with interruption. Republicans responded in kind, largely accepting the framing of the issue as an either-or. 

Massie exited the hearing early, leaving Harriet Hageman of Wyoming to chair the thing to its unsatisfying conclusion. With Joel Salatin’s help, he had made his points. While I don’t think he ever quite said it, something about Massie’s classically Roman haircut and line of argument made me expect him to ask at any moment: What happened to caveat emptor? His appeal, like that of libertarianism in general, is to the responsible and self-reliant. Unlike think-tank libertarians, however, Massie’s responsible and self-reliant Americans are not atomized instances of homo economicus but persons embedded in families, local communities, townships, counties, and states. TAC readers might call the Massie fan club Crunchy Cons. The PRIME Act works when people know each other; it was the Democrats on the subcommittee who live in a world made up of anonymous commercial exchange. Massie represents the Jeffersonian tradition in a Hamiltonian country. It still has some of the Jeffersonian oddities—the technologist country squire championing yeoman farmers—but the American middle class needs someone to fight for real property rights if we are to ever make the home a site of productive activity again.


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