Arkansas' Meat Inspection Program Gets Federal Approval

Arkansas' Meat Inspection Program Gets Federal Approval
A calf wanders the pasture at the Flying C Ranch in Conway. (Karen E. Segrave)

Cattlemen in Arkansas will have more markets to sell their cattle after the state’s meat inspection program gained federal approval.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the program was “ready to go” Tuesday at a conference at the Capitol in Little Rock. The program is part of Act 418, which became a state law in March 2021.

The state partnered with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — one of 29 states to participate — to allow state-certified facilities to sell beef within the state of Arkansas.

The need for more in-state processing was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic when production slowdowns nationally caused cattle prices to drop precipitously. The state had 20 processing facilities, but just three certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When the backlog of production caused beef prices to plummet, Arkansas cattlemen couldn’t find other avenues because, at the time, it was illegal to sell directly to consumers such as restaurants or farmers’ markets. Most cattlemen had to sit on their cattle, so to speak, and hope that prices rebounded before the consequences were disastrous.

The new program will allow more facilities in Arkansas; Hutchinson said the state now has six and several more in the hopper either applying for certification or interested in applying. The program will also allow beef to be sold directly farm-to-table to consumers, opening up new markets for cattlemen.

“This is a big deal,” said Dan Wright, secretary-treasurer of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. “Cattlemen needed something to give them another outlet. At the same time, we had consumers say we would like to buy locally grown food but we can’t do it because the cattlemen can’t sell us that product.”

State Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, sponsored the legislation and said it was a true bipartisan bill. She said allowing direct consumer sales will be a benefit to organizations such as food banks and senior centers.

“When this started, I did not realize how big of an impact this could actually have on the state,” Vaught said. “It’s great for the state of Arkansas. It’s amazing for our beef producers to say, ‘Hey we are selling Arkansas beef here in our state.’ ”

Cody Burkham, the executive vice president of the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, said cattleman are “extremely excited” about the new law. He actively lobbied the state legislature in 2020, saying it needed to reinstate its inspection program, which it had until 1981.

At the time, Burkham told Arkansas Business that the inspection program reinstatement wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” but would allow cattlemen to sell heads of cattle to local restaurants, for example, without having to go through a packing conglomerate.

“It’s important they have all the market access they possibly can,” Burkham said Tuesday. “It’s another way that our producers will be able to market their product and have complete control.”

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