Access to slaughterhouses, especially USDA- and state-inspected slaughterhouses, remains the biggest weakness in the local food system. The federal requirement that only meat from an animal slaughtered and processed in an inspected facility (a facility where an inspector is present when slaughtering and processing takes place) can be legally sold has made it difficult for many farmers and ranchers to meet demand.
Federal law does provide two exemptions from the mandatory inspection requirements for slaughtering and processing: the custom slaughter and custom processing exemption and the personal use exemption. Even though the law bars sales of meat from anyone operating under either exemption, there are still ways farmers can use the exemptions to help their business.
Custom Slaughter Exemptions
The custom slaughter and custom processing exemptions (the “custom exemption”) in part 9 CFR 303.1(a)(2) provides, in part, “(2) The custom slaughter by any person of cattle, sheep, swine, or goats delivered by the owner thereof for such slaughter, and the preparation by such slaughterer and transportation in commerce of the carcasses, parts thereof, meat and meat food products of such livestock, exclusively for use, in the household of such owner, by him and members of his household and his nonpaying guests and employees; nor to the custom preparation by any person of carcasses, parts thereof, meat or meat food products derived from the slaughter by any individual of cattle, sheep, swine, or goats of his own raising or from game animals, delivered by the owner thereof for such custom preparation, and transportation in commerce of such custom prepared articles, exclusively for use in the household of such owner, by him and members of his household and his nonpaying guests and employees. . . .”1
Under the exemption there is no limit on the number of owners there can be for an animal that is an amenable species (cattle, hogs, sheep and goats),2 and there is no specific minimum size portion each owner must have according to the current interpretation of the law by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).2 At one time, FSIS allowed a group such as a consumer cooperative to be the owner of a custom animal,3 but its current policy is that only individuals (whether they are on their own or part of a group such as a food buyers club) can be an owner at any time up to slaughter. The individuals owning the animal must be identified before slaughter takes place; it is illegal to become the owner of a custom animal after slaughter.
Livestock slaughtered and processed under the exemption can be shipped across state lines. In the last couple of legislative sessions, several states have passed animal share bills where someone may purchase an ownership interest in an animal (or herd of animals) entitling the purchaser to a share of meat from the animal (or herd). FSIS has made no public comment on the animal share laws.
What FSIS has made public is that it has asked the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (46 FR 486116) to consider, among other things:
- Should FSIS conduct rulemaking to set a numerical limit on the number of individuals allowed to co-own an animal presented for slaughter/processing under the custom exemption provision (e.g., limiting to four the number of individuals allowed to co-own a market hog presented for slaughter)? If so, what factors should the agency consider, if any, to determine the limits for different amenable species?
- Should FSIS conduct rulemaking to clarify that collectively owned membership organizations or other firms (e.g., a group of individuals residing across disparate locations organized into a ‘‘livestock ownership co-op’’ via an online platform) cannot ‘‘own’’ animals for purposes of the custom exemption?4
The custom slaughter and processing exemption has helped livestock farmers who have been unable to get timely access to inspected slaughterhouses. FSIS rulemaking on either topic could reduce the market for custom animals considerably.
Personal Use Exemptions
The personal use exemption, 9 CFR 303.1(a)(1) provides: “The requirements of the [Federal Meat Inspection] Act and the regulations in this subchapter for the inspection of the preparation of products do not apply to: (1) The slaughtering by an individual of livestock of his own raising and the preparation by him and transportation in commerce of the carcasses, parts thereof, meat and meat products of such livestock exclusively for use by him and members of his household and his non-paying guests and employees.”1
In 2018, FSIS published a guidance document explaining what those under various exemptions from inspection, including the personal use exemption, can legally do. FSIS’s interpretation of the law provides a way for farmers to sell live meat animals while remaining under the personal use—rather than the custom slaughter—exemption. The guidance states that under the personal use exemption: A person may purchase livestock from a farm or ranch and then slaughter it on-site using the farm or ranch facilities or equipment; a. If a person purchases livestock, and uses the on-site facilities without assistance from the seller, then the activity remains personal use; b. If the seller participates in the slaughter or processing activity, then the facility owner is subject to the custom slaughter exempt criteria.5
In the past, FSIS has treated farmers slaughtering and processing livestock as part of a workshop as regulated by the personal use exemption. The arrangement acceptable to FSIS was that those attending the class would pay one fee for the education and another for an ownership interest in the animal being slaughtered and processed. It isn’t known whether this is still FSIS policy; with the high demand for skilled meatcutters, it makes sense for the agency to maintain this interpretation of the law. The guidance document states, “The owners of the livestock may or may not reside at the same physical location as the animal,”5 establishing that there can be more than one owner under the personal use exemption. FSIS has indicated that there can be unlimited owners for a farm-slaughtered animal whether under the personal use or custom exemption.6 Nowhere has FSIS required that owners obtaining meat under the personal use exemption must receive a specific minimum amount; as with the custom exemption, livestock slaughtered and processed under the personal use exemption can be shipped interstate.
The personal use exemption has fewer requirements than the custom exemption; the only requirements are that no livestock be slaughtered which are unfit for human consumption, no “specified risk materials (SRMs) be distributed for use as human food, and that the carcasses and parts are not prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions.”7 The custom exemption has additional requirements for the physical facility, water, labeling, recordkeeping and ingredients used in the preparation of meat products. There are also state licensing requirements for custom facilities;8 usually no license is needed for a farmer operating under the personal use exemption.
The personal use exemption is a possible solution for livestock farmers who can’t even get timely access to a custom facility and have an experienced meatcutter as an owner of an animal whether that owner is a farmer or someone experienced in the trade.
The requirements for the custom and personal use exemptions are what the Feds mandate. Those interested in operating under either exemption should check their state law to see whether there are additional requirements; in most states, there are not. The federal meat inspection laws are in dire need of amending to expand local slaughterhouse infrastructure and small-scale meat processing; until they do change, the custom and personal use exemptions are valuable tools for small farmers to better meet the demand.
Anyone with questions about the exemption can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Exemptions (2021), 9 C.F.R § 303.1(a)(2). https://www.govregs.com/ regulations/expand/title9_chapterIII_part303_section303.1.
- Gillespie, K.J. (2017, April 13). For Dr. Gillespie – ownership, custom meat. [Email]. AskFSIS Policy Development Staff. https:// www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Q-Gillespie- USDA-FSIS-CustomMeatOwnership-041217.pdf.
- Gillespie, K.J. (2016, January 6). For Dr. Gillespie – ownership, custom meat. [Email]. AskFSIS Policy Development Staff. https://www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Q-Gillespie-USDA-FSIS-ownership-custom-meat-010616.pdf.
- National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection; Notification of public meeting, 86 Fed. Reg. 146 (August 27, 2021), p. 48116. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ media_file/2021-08/FSIS-2021-0019.pdf.
- USDA-FSIS (2018, May 24). FSIS Guidelines for Determining Whether a Livestock Slaughter or Processing Firm Is Exempt from the Inspection Requirements of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, p. 3. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/ regulatory-compliance/guidelines/2018-0007.
- Gillespie, K.J. (2019, February 22). For Dr. Gillespie – ownership, custom meat. [Email]. AskFSIS Policy Development Staff. https://www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Q-Gillespie-USDA-FSIS-On-Farm-Slaughter-questions-022219.pdf.
- FSIS Guideline, p. 3.
- Ibid., pp. 4-7.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2021🖨️ Print post