imageI am amazed at how little awareness there is about the laws regarding the sale of meat and meat animals in our state, and how frequently I see people blatantly (but probably naively) breaking the law. This topic came up at the Lamb 100 class I took last fall, where we got some expert advice from WSU instructors who communicate regularly with USDA/WSDA inspectors. So here’s the deal, as far as I understand it.

The usual disclaimer applies: I am not a lawyer or a law expert. I do consult with “The Green Book”- the official Washington State Department of Agriculture Small Farm and Direct Marketing Handbook, which outlines the basics of all farm product sales. Everyone who sells farm product should have a copy of this on hand; it’s free, and a great reference.

USDA Labeling

For meat to be sold by the cut, it must be USDA inspected. That means a USDA inspector must be present both during the animal kill, and also during the cutting and wrapping of the meat. This is a constraint for most people: there are very few places in our state where there is access to this type of inspection. And in places where it is, it’s only if you meet a certain minimum volume. The cost is high, which of course is passed on to the customer.

So, for the time being, USDA inspection is “out” for most small producers, which means they cannot sell meat by the cut. At all. What is legal is to sell animals “on the hoof.” This means that money must change hands while the animal is still alive. If you want to charge by the pound, it must be by live weight. The Green Book is clear on this: “In order to meet this requirement [of selling non-USDA inspected meat], producers sell live animals by weight (live weight) directly to the end consumer.

Divvying Up

Once a price is agreed upon and the animal is paid for according to terms, then the buyer can have it slaughtered and cut however they want. Including doing it themselves, or having it done by a state-licensed custom butcher (which is different from a USDA inspected facility).

There is one legal allowance for divvying, in that you can sell animals on the hoof by the half or quarter. This allows for the practicality that most families can’t eat a whole cow in a year, so they can split it with another two or three families. But again, all pricing, negotiation and money transfer must be done while the animal is still alive, and based on live weight.

The instructors at Lamb 101 were pretty clear about this: you can’t charge by hanging weight. Because that is not known until after the animal is dead, which implies money is not changing hands while the animal is still alive, and thus, you have not sold the animal on the hoof and based on live weight as is required. The best you can do is help customers understand how live weight typically translates into hanging weight and final cut weight by percentage, if they are trying to figure out price per pound for the meat they will receive. But you can’t wait to see what the hanging weight is! (No pun intended.)

An acquaintance of mine was telling me about some meat he buys locally, and insisting that it must be legal to charge by hanging weight, because this seller does so. His logic was this: well, this seller likes to keep certain parts of the animal for himself (the hide, the bones, hmm, maybe some of the good cuts? Would a Seattlelite know better if he was missing some of the animal??); so therefor he needed to charge the customer by the pound for what was left after he picked out what he wanted post-butcher. Smile

No can do, dude! Now, the buyer of the animal is free to give away the hide, bones and whatever as a gift, if they choose, within the constraints of the law. But I don’t think you can make conditions of an animal sale based on you keeping some parts of the carcass, and the buyer getting others (unless it’s just a half or quarter animal); because now again, you’re back at selling meat products by the cut.

And you certainly can’t sell one of “last fall’s lambs” right out of your home freezer if it’s not USDA inspected! Good heavens! And yet, I see this kind of advertising on craigslist now and then, so a lot of people are unaware of this law. The Green Book says, “Custom slaughtered meat is “uninspected” because it is not processed in a USDA inspected facility and cannot be resold. All packaged meat must be labeled ‘not for sale’. Only the owner of the animal and their immediate family or non-paying guests can consume it. It cannot be sold at farmers markets, to restaurants, or to grocery stores. It also cannot be donated to food banks.”

My understanding is that this especially applies to giving away frozen meat. If you are a producer, you’d better not be handing out packages of your own meat to potential customers if it’s not inspected. At best, you can share it with family members and house guests as a gift, but never as a marketing tool.

Contracting for Custom Butcher

At the Lamb 101 class, we asked about the case where the farmer “handles” the relationship with the butcher. Say I take the buyer’s cut and wrap fee and give it to the butcher, drop off the live animal for slaughter, then pick up the frozen meat, and deliver it to the buyer. So the buyer just pays a flat fee to me and I drop off meat to them. They cautioned that this was a gray area, but to be careful. The Green Book says, “The producer contracts with a WSDA licensed custom slaughterer (mobile truck or fixed facility) for on farm kill of the animal already sold. … Once clean, the carcass is tagged and delivered to a WSDA licensed custom meat facility for aging, cutting and wrapping, and freezing. Individual customers must call the facility with directions on how to cut the carcass. Customers make arrangements to pick up their meat.”

Certainly if the buyer has already bought the animal and paid the butcher, they may instruct the butcher to hand over the meat product to a person of their choosing, which may be you, to pick it up. And theoretically, the same idea could be true of payment: maybe the buyer asks the farmer to drop off their cut & wrap payment with the butcher as a favor. In this case, the farmer would need to be clear about separating the charges of the live animal with the “handled” charges for the butcher. But my understanding is that should not lump them together into one simple, flat fee where it would appear you are selling a batch of frozen meat for a certain price.

I know our butcher isn’t comfortable with this type of arrangement: they want the owner of the animal to order and pay for cut & wrap, and to be on record in the paperwork, because that’s the letter of the law. They want to hear from that owner on the phone about their cut and wrap list, ideally before the animal is dropped off. And I tend to agree.

I am happy to drop off live lambs to a butcher as a courtesy to buyers. But for all purchased animals, I hand the butcher a 3×5 card with the animal owner’s name and phone; and each animal’s ear tag number is associated with a specific buyer. And the buyer gets a receipt with the same animal ear tag number. Because the law implies that they have to buy a particular animal in advance, not just “a lamb.” The first time I did this, the butcher said, wow, thanks, this is so great! So I’m guessing this is a constant struggle for them, to stay legal when dealing in the middle of live animal transactions when many people don’t understand the law.

The Unwanted Stuff

What to do with the offal is another issue. In the good old days, rendering plants would pick up for free, or even pay for, offal from custom butchers. So nobody had to worry about it, and it went into various by-product channels: pet food, glue, cosmetics, plywood, and all the other zillion products that use animal by-product. But post-mad-cow, this is no longer the case, there isn’t a market for unaccounted-for animal waste and ruminant spinal and brain tissue anymore. Our local butcher requires the owner of the animal to take responsibility for the offal. For a ruminant, that’s quite a bit of “stuff”, and smelly stuff, to boot.

I try to hold the line on having customers take care of this, because I feel it’s part of the deal of buying farm-fresh meat. For most people, it’s legal and perfectly ok to put the offal in a garbage bag in their regular trash can pickup. I try to prep customers for this expectation in advance, and have it in my ordering literature. Then I tell the butcher, if someone really panics over it, no big deal, call me and I’ll come get it. I can handle one or two bags of offal now and then; but I don’t want to take on everyone’s, or I wouldn’t have a method of dealing with the volume of it. Most people seem accepting of this somewhat distasteful, but realistic aspect of meat production.

I let all my buyers know that if they don’t want some usable parts of the lamb- organs, bones etc., that it’s fine to let the butcher know to leave those behind for me and I’ll incorporate them into my dog food so they don’t go to waste (of course the state says I can’t legally eat the stuff, since it’s no longer my animal as of several hours ago! Open-mouthed smile).  But I don’t make it a condition of sale, because I can’t sell just parts of an animal to somebody. It’s their lamb, they get the whole thing, and only they get to make decisions about what to do with each cut or component.


I’m curious about the actual enforcement of these laws, as I’ve never heard any small producer “getting busted” for doing it wrong. Have you? I suspect it’s like anything, the state only has so much bandwidth for enforcement, so they ignore the little fish in the pond most of the time. But I would imagine if someone got sick, and food poisoning was suspected, all of a sudden, the state would be very interested in any local farm products that person had been consuming. So it’s well worth trying to toe the line, just in case!