SHERIDAN — Empty grocery store shelves and sky-high beef prices at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the American food system, and Wyoming lawmakers are discussing ways to address the problems this session.

“Last spring, when the shutdowns were going on, there was no meat in the grocery stores or very little meat in the grocery stores,” Converse County Rep. Aaron Clausen said during a House Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources meeting Thursday. “We realized—we’d had a hunch before, but we realized how weak our food system is in certain places, and one of those would be in the meat processing and distribution.”

In committee Thursday, legislators voted to forward House Bill 54, the “Wyoming meat packing initiative” to the floor. If passed, the bill will provide money in the form of grants and loans to in-state meat processors. Loans would likely require a private match and would be administered by the Wyoming Business Council, and could be used to create, maintain or expand infrastructure for plants processing meat products in Wyoming. The funding could also be used to establish mid‑sized meat processing plants for international, in‑state and interstate sales in the state.

The committee discussed but ultimately tabled House Bill 51 “Meat processing programs,” which would extend the timeline for which processors could utilize CARES Act funding for expanding and enhancing meat processing capabilities. The committee voted to table in the hope of considering a substitute, more streamlined, bill in March.

The effort is not new but has been accelerated by the global coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. In the wake of a large-scale “buy local” movement that has gained enthusiasm for years, the state has been pursuing ways to expand and diversify businesses within its agricultural sector.

Brett Moline, director of public and governmental affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau, said his agency supports the legislation, which would do just that.

“This started before COVID-19, with this impetus to buy local and know where your meat is coming from. COVID-19 showed that we need more local processing, and we need more capacity in the processing industry,” Moline said.

Last year, 1,200 head of cattle were killed in state and federally inspected facilities in Wyoming, according to Clausen. That increased to 1,600 in the last year, but for perspective, facilities along the Front Range of Colorado can process up to 6,000 head of cattle per day.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Director Jim Magagna explained that House Bill 54 takes a long-term look at expanding processing capacity within the state.

“It takes what we currently have to the next stage,” he said. “It is targeted toward creating the opportunity to develop significant new processing. It’s great that existing plants have been able to modernize and expand a few head. We have three new federally inspected plants in the state, but none of them can do more than 50 head a week.

“What we really need is not to compete with the great big (processing plants), but we need facilities in Wyoming that could do 300, 400, 500 in a day, or certainly in a week,” Magagna said. “Bill 54 is a longer-term look at what we need.”

What the lack of mid-sized processors in Wyoming really means is that there is no easy way to get beef from local cattle to hungry Wyomingites in a crisis.

“We don’t have an avenue where, if we have fat cattle around and people that are hungry in Wyoming, we don’t have an avenue where we could get (beef) to them at any scale,” Clausen said.

As meat processing plants have become more and more vertically integrated over the last few decades, the market consolidated under huge, centralized processing plants. Small to mid-sized processing plants aged out as their infrastructure and technology could not keep up with the industry giants.

USDA inspection requirements also pose challenges for the small processor, but those are related to food safety and will likely remain in place, Clausen said. Legislators hope that with Wyoming Business Council funding, technical assistance and permitting expertise, some of the barriers can be broken.

“The goal of this is to expand those small, custom plants so that if we get into a place like we were last spring, where those big plants were shut down, we can at the very least feed our people,” Clausen said. “There is also a long term future because there is a huge demand for locally raised meats, and that is where this comes from.”

Rep. John Eklund, of Laramie and Goshen counties, said that the issues are not limited to beef. Thousands of hogs were also destroyed when meat processing plants were forced to shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks in the spring of 2020.

“The tens of thousands of hogs that were destroyed during the pandemic were the result of one plant in eastern South Dakota closing down. That amounted to a third of the processing capability. It was cheaper to kill the pigs than to hang on to them until they could keep the plant up and running,” Eklund said.

While COVID-19 initially resulted in a crash of live cattle prices to the detriment of the producers, while large-scale processors made money by increasing consumer prices, Magagna said there is a lesson to be learned.

“It was a wake up call that we needed,” Magagna said. “We can’t be totally dependent on those (few large scale processors). The consumers now are more attuned to wanting to know where their food is coming from and to wanting to buy local.”

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