As previously reported here, Vermont farmer John Klar has openly challenged state laws that restrict farmers and consumers from an age-old tradition of slaughtering animals on-farm and then having them processed at local state-inspected custom processors. Klar here relates his interpretation of federal law, and how states are imposing more stringent – and indefensible – requirements on farmers and their customers, at the expense of local commerce and humane animal treatment.
by John Klar
Last week I attended a Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee meeting to address on-farm slaughter laws. In 2013, Vermont passed a law which permitted the on-farm slaughter of whole animals only—it is a law I have protested loudly, and violated openly. But that provision is set to “sunset” on July 1, 2016, which would mean that after that date, Vermont farms could not slaughter any animals on-farm for public sale.
Vermont’s itinerant slaughterers and custom processors have built their businesses on serving the demand for local meat from animals slaughtered on the farm. If this statutory “exemption” expires, they will be compelled to ship all animals to large federally-inspected facilities. But Vermont farmers should be permitted not only to continue to slaughter animals humanely on-farm; they should be free to sell halves or even quarters of animals to their customers. We have long done so without illness; customers often do not wish to purchase a whole animal; and this is the most humane way to take an animal’s life.
Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets (VAAFM) has for years asserted that federal law requires that only whole animals be slaughtered on-farm. But this is simply not true. New York permits the sales of shares in an animal, and permits customers to slaughter and process animals on the farm. Oregon also: in their paper “Frequently asked questions about using custom-exempt slaughter and processing facilities in Oregon for beef, pork, lamb and goat,” Lauren Gwin and Jim Postelwait observe “USDA does not have a specific rule about how many shares you may sell in any one animal. Some states restrict shares to four or eight per animal, but Oregon does not have such a restriction.” And in a recent email from the USDA itself, Dr. Kevin J. Gillespie DVM, of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, stated that there is no limit on how many owners there can be for a custom-slaughtered animal.
So why are Vermont’s laws so restrictive, and what impact does that have to do with food policy and food safety? The first question is easily answered: as David Gumpert has observed in his book Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights, “Government agencies guard their power, and seek to expand it where possible.” (p. 195). Our VAAFM has misrepresented the law in order to guard and expand its bloated budget. In doing so, the VAAFM employs the tired excuse that it must guard the Vermont brand from even a single case of illness. (What Gumpert terms an “…effort to stir up fear and distrust of the food provider….” Food Rights, p. 216). Yet no one has been made ill in the hundreds of years of Vermont farmers slaughtering at home: indeed, almost all cases of illness from red meat or poultry arise from huge national slaughterhouses, even here in Vermont.
These state restrictions have severe repercussions. They compel farmers to truck animals to federally-inspected facilities, causing stress. Because most buyers of beef cannot afford (or store) an entire animal, these laws cut the custom processor and itinerant slaughterer out of this commerce entirely. If allowed to stand, these laws will stifle consumer choices and inhibit farming trade, as has happened in Massachusetts, where a shortage of processors and lack of an on-farm slaughter exemption have done exactly that. As the Boston Globe has reported, citizens there face “…plenty of demand for locally raised meats but long waiting times for slaughtering or long hours driving to reach out-of-state facilities. The local food movement has been a boon for farmers, but for meat producers in particular, the system for getting their product to the table has not kept pace with rising demand.” This is what Vermont producers and customers face if these draconian restrictions persist. Wendell Berry wrote about precisely such pressures in Kentucky, back in 1977: “The only conceivable beneficiaries were the meat-packing corporations, and for this questionable gain local life was weakened at its economic roots.” (“Sanitation and the Small Farm,” The Gift of Good Land, North Point Press, United States, 1982). Berry observed that the local slaughterhouses “… were essential to the effort of many people to live self-sufficiently from their own produce – and these people had raised no objections to the way their meat was being handled.” Sounds like Vermont, and Massachusetts, in 2016.
But here is the Vermont government’s biggest problem: the animal that is slaughtered whole goes through the exact same process as the animal that is sold in halves: if I sell a whole beef, it is slaughtered on-farm, cut into quarters, then trucked to the local custom processor of my customer’s choosing. This is the exact process that occurs if two people share in the purchase and each buy a half beef from me. Exactly the same. Presumably this is why the federal government, and many states, have quite logically permitted the sales of animals by shared ownership: the distinction drawn by the State of Vermont is utterly artificial, and does not advance public health and safety. But it does create an unfair competitive advantage for the large federally-inspected processor.
It is the government’s burden to prove that its law reasonably accomplishes a health and safety goal. In this case, there is no benefit to health or safety to restrict farmers and their customers to purchases of whole animals only. And where a law, as here, undermines the commercial interests of the custom processor and itinerant slaughterer, interrupts the individual choices of the customer, and compromises the humane treatment of the animal, it cannot be supported under our Constitutions if it fails to advance health or safety. This is why I will continue to challenge Vermont’s unsupportable laws. And if I succeed in court here, I pray that I will open the door to common sense and Constitutional freedom in other states.
These statutes also restrict how many animals a farmer can sell from their farm: once again, there is no improvement to health and safety; the rationale employed is that we farmers cannot be trusted; animals in excess of those limits will be diverted from the commerce of local businesses, and exposed to unnecessary stress.
Finally, a farmer who does not file an informational form (under 6 Vermont Statutes Annotated (V.S.A.) § 3311a (7)) may be subject to a criminal penalty of $1,000 or one year in prison, under 6 V.S.A. § 3317. This violates the constitutional concept of proportionality (let the punishment fit the crime), and is a perfect example of what happens when government agencies seek to “expand their power.” This is why we have our State and Federal Constitutions: to protect us from exactly these kinds of overreach.
As I said in my previous blog post here, I am fighting for my neighbors, my animals, my children, and Vermont’s culture, which are all under attack in the name of “protecting us.” I do not oppose reasonable regulation: I will oppose absurd laws like these till the cows come home.