by Stephen Wagner

At the turn of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” the first book to take on the meat industry and the slaughter of animals.

Dr. Jonathan Campbell is Penn State’s meat specialist when it comes to explaining beef and how you sell it. He’s worked with meat packers across Pennsylvania for the past several years, talking inspection and exemption, both custom and retail, with the blessing of the USDA and FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service). In 1906 the Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed. The crux of that act is found in point 603: Examination of animals prior to slaughter and use of humane methods. This included examination of animals before being slaughtered, with diseased animals to be slaughtered separately and examined.

“If you think back to what was happening in this country, we were in an industrial revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when we started to centralize meat processing in this country. The idea that this is a new phenomenon is not true. It’s more in the forefront now with the pandemic,” Campbell said. “The Meat Inspection Act was really to prevent disease or adulterated meat products from entering into commerce, or from being sold to the public, so it was to protect you as producers from spreading animal disease. It was also meant to protect the consumer from having meat that was perhaps adulterated with feces or ingested material or milk material that could contain food-borne illness causing bacteria to make folks sick.”

A custom slaughter exemption allows for the sale and slaughter of a live animal to an individual or group of individuals and that animal harvested. The carcass is not being offered for sale. It is exclusively for the use of the household of the owner, their guests and any employees. By law, items that are not inspected under the custom slaughter exemption cannot even be donated or given away. It’s a gray area of the law and it’s not regulated because you are not selling the product. You cannot donate that product to a food bank or give it to your neighbor.

“I hear the term ‘USDA Certified’ a lot,” Campbell said. “That’s a term I would really like to discard because USDA really doesn’t certify anything. There are other departments within the USDA structure that certify organic. That is a certification, but inspection is not a certification. This is just complying with the Meat Inspection Act.”

If you want to have your own retail shop, that requires a license as well as having an on-farm market. If you want to sell freezer beef, this is something that has many definitions across the U.S. “I would refer to it as frozen meat cuts,” Campbell asserted. “Some people refer to selling the live animal also as freezer beef.” If you want to have an on-farm market where you sell meat by the cut or by the pound out of a freezer, you can do that, but you have to apply for a license from your state’s Department of Agriculture. A local or regional farmers market also requires a license from the Ag Department.

The meat or any of the food products prepared from it must come from carcasses from livestock that has been slaughtered under inspection. Under that retail exemption, in a brick and mortar shop – “I’m not talking about a farmers market or an on-farm market where you have a freezer … but a shop where you’re actually cutting meat” – you can sell fresh cuts, steaks, roasts, ground product, cooked and smoked and other types of value-added products.

There’s also the Hotel-Restaurant and Institutional Exemption. If you’re operating under a retail exemption, and you own a retail butcher shop where you’re buying inspected meat or inspected carcasses, quarters, primals or sub-primals of beef and further processing that, you can sell from that retail butcher shop to a hotel or a local restaurant without some of these inspections being on the label, or being required up to a certain dollar amount. That dollar amount changes on a year-to-year basis. “If your total retail sales to those entities are less than that [yearly limit] you can technically operate under the restaurant exemption and sell to those restaurants,” Campbell explained.