Legislators back bipartisan state meat inspection bill

For the Basin Business Journal | March 9, 2021 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — A group of state senators from both parties, including Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, is backing a bill that would create a meat inspection service for Washington.

If passed, Senate Bill 5045 would create a state meat and poultry marketing assistance program that would allow individual farms and smaller slaughterhouses that process beef, pork and poultry to sell directly to consumers.

“There’s an awful lot of interest in this because of the pandemic,” Warnick said. “We realized how fragile our food supply chain is, and people want to know where their food comes from.”

“Especially the meat,” Warnick added. “They want to know their food is local, that’s what we’re finding. And this bill will help do that.”

The bill would help small farms and slaughterhouses comply with federal, state and local rules governing the marketing of meat and poultry products, assist with marketing opportunities, as well as train for slaughterhouse operators and inspectors, and require the Washington State Department of Agriculture to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “operate a state inspection program.”

Also co-sponsoring the bill are Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting all meat slaughtered and prepared for sale in Washington. However, USDA gave the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) authority to inspect meat slaughtered and prepared solely for consumption by the owner or poultry facilities where 1,000 or fewer birds are slaughtered annually.

The measure would require small, custom slaughterhouses — including mobile slaughtering facilities — to be licensed and inspected by the WSDA.

Warnick said the program would be expected to cost around $2.5 million per year. She said she is working with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima, and Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Issaquah, to secure some funding for the program in the next round of coronavirus relief, which is currently making its way through Congress.

The bill is needed because a number of smaller slaughter facilities cannot directly market to consumers, Warnick said. She gave as an example the place where Warnick said they take her granddaughter’s 4-H steer, which can slaughter the animal, but can only do that for private consumption and only sell the animal in portions like halves or quarters, and not in cuts a butcher could sell to consumers.

The bill will also allow conservation districts to expand their operations into slaughtering and marketing. Warnick said she was surprised to learn some west side conservation districts own mobile slaughter facilities they lease out to farmers.

“Ours have to deal with water and soil,” she said. “Others are more involved in the entire food industry as a local partner with the Department of Agriculture.”

The bill also seeks to establish a grant program that could be used by conservation districts to “establish a mobile slaughter unit” in the district or help create local infrastructure “for the retail sale of meat or poultry” from small or mobile slaughterhouses.

Warnick said the measure passed the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, and she sounded optimistic about the bill’s future as it makes its way through the state legislature.

“There’s a heck of a lot of interest in this,” Warnick said. “People want to be able to do this, both on the processing side and the growing side. It will give people more opportunities to sell, and that’s what we’re hoping this will do.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.