I am very conscious of the fact that I am a state senator in “The Beef State.” I represent the largest district in the state: about one fifth of Nebraska’s total land mass. The 43rd District is about the size of Denmark. There are nearly 40,000 people here and more than a million cattle.

Folks around the world are reading about the pandemic-related problems in our food supply chain. It is one that most outsiders do not understand. Our ranchers do not generally sell beef: they sell cattle. The big packers buy the animals, and each of them is individually slaughtered and inspected by the USDA. In some states, this inspection is instead completed through a state program.

The big processing plants have hundreds of workers in close quarters. They are already maintaining hygiene standards required for food processing facilities, but that has not prevented the transmission of COVID-19 among staff. Those plants are the biggest hotspots in our state.

As a result, there is disruption in the industry. The critical step of turning animals into meat is bottlenecked, with just a handful of packers processing almost all the retail meat supply in the United States.

There are also local meat lockers that provide exempt custom processing of animals for ranchers’ families and for the few animals that ranchers sell directly. That doesn’t require a USDA or equivalent inspection, because the animal’s owner is having his own animal slaughtered and butchered and is not selling the meat. But if the local butcher wants to put that meat in his case and sell it retail to the public, Nebraska law and federal law say that meat has to be USDA-inspected.

Let’s be clear: That custom processing exemption still requires that the meat be processed in a sanitary way. It requires careful production and business records. But for some reason, that meat has to be stamped “not for sale.” The difference comes down to that stamp. The meat inside the butcher paper is just as good and just as safe as meat inspected by the USDA. But it cannot be legally sold as meat to buyers in the quantities that most families buy meat in.

In another beef state, Wyoming, they have state meat inspection. Ironically, having more state bureaucracy allowed the governor there some greater flexibility in cutting so-called bureaucratic red tape. I am not ever in favor of building more bureaucracy. But if there is a way we can change our state law to give some flexibility to our ag producers, I think the Nebraska Legislature has a duty to act right now.

I believe that Nebraska beef is the finest in the world. Our beef is so good it sells itself. My colleagues and I have a responsibility to get big government out of the way, so Nebraska producers can focus on what they are best at: feeding the world.

Contact Sen. Tom Brewer: tbrewer@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2628.

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