Small producers raising goats, sheep and swine will likely benefit from a bill signed into law last week that will make it easier to sell livestock at the farm where it was raised. Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the measure soon after a new report revealed how meat processers have continued to face steep challenges due to the pandemic, drought, wildfires and a marketplace in flux.

In praising the passage of Assembly Bill 888, Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, which sponsored the legislation, said that providing an exemption from inspections for mobile slaughter operations targets systemic weaknesses within the food supply chain.

“AB 888 will help address meat processing bottlenecks by providing more options to safely slaughter goats, sheep and swine locally,” said Johansson. “By allowing for diversification in ranch revenue streams, this bill ensures that small ranchers can stay on the land, bringing down fuel loads while feeding families.”

Sheep ranchers have urged lawmakers to provide more support for their efforts to graze down dry vegetation to prevent wildfire spread.

Marcia Barinaga, who runs a traditional Basque sheep ranch along the eastern shores of Tamales Bay in Marin County, helped the Farm Bureau craft the measure. It gained broad support from livestock trade groups as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council and sailed through both houses with no opposition.

AB 888 rode a wave of support by serving as an extension of a popular 2018 bill signed into law that delivered the same exemption for beef cattle. And USDA has already granted this exemption for all livestock producers at the federal level.

The bill allows ranchers to sell an animal directly to the consumer. This offers added animal health benefits by alleviating stress during transit and reducing the potential risk of injury, according to Robert Spiegel, a policy advocate for the Farm Bureau. He added that it would meet new and growing preferences for California consumers, who are increasingly seeking local relationships with sustainable producers to learn about farm practices and animal husbandry, and to support local businesses.

“The bill develops and encourages these new business opportunities for small-scale agriculture and leads to dynamically changing food preferences for all Californians,” Spiegel told the Assembly Agriculture Committee earlier this year. “So let's continue to support producers and consumers looking for a safe and sustainable solution to locally raised livestock.”

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The bill’s author, Assemblymember Marc Levine of San Rafael, shared similar arguments, adding that AB 888 will create a much-needed opportunity for craft butchery operations and will strengthen local food systems.

“Providing these small businesses with more flexibility through on-farm harvest is a more humane way to treat the animals and is better for our environment,” said Levine.

The proponents acknowledged the bill provides limited relief to producers and in specific circumstances it could help to avoid the sort of food disruptions that took place in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UC Davis Food Systems Lab last month published a study revealing, among many other hurdles, a lack of access to slaughtering services for small and midsize meat producers. Already faced with a market concentration that favors major meat companies, small producers have struggled to stay in business.

“Remote or mobile slaughter operations are extremely important to small-scale producers,” the authors write.

Yet California has just 56 such operations, which “is likely to be insufficient capacity to serve the needs of the high-value meat sector.” Along with passing AB 888, the report recommends CDFA work with the Legislature to create a California meat inspection program, which would level the playing field for the small to mid-scale producers within this sector.

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