On-Farm Slaughter May Be Legal, But It's Complicated

Jan 2, 2014

A law passed last spring that led to new rules for commercial on-farm slaughter is going through some growing pains.

H-515, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets housekeeping bill, made it legal for farmers to facilitate on-farm slaughter, but not conduct it themselves. The limitations – and wording – of the rule are causing some frustration and confusion.

At Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, for example, the law's stipulation that only an itinerant slaughterer or the animal's buyer can perform the slaughter on-site means that farm co-owner Laura Olsen can't do it herself. 

The farm does have a retail cutting license that allows them to butcher inspected meat. On a recent afternoon, Olsen and Kegan Refalo sharpened knives and prepared to butcher two of their pigs. The animals had been transported to Royal Butcher in Randolph to be slaughtered and inspected. The transport is an extra step that Olsen says she wouldn't mind having the option of foregoing.

"There's a slaughter fee and a box fee and a dealing-with-waste fee. And that's actually one of the places where [with] on-farm slaughter we could save a lot of money, because we do high-quality compost." - Laura Olsen, Green Mountain Girls Farm

"To have the flexibility to do some on-farm slaughter at least would be really nice," she says.

Olsen says she can tell it stresses her animals to move them to the slaughterhouse. And there would be a financial benefit to doing everything on-site.

"There’s a slaughter fee and a box fee and a dealing-with-waste fee," she says. "And that’s actually one of the places where [with] on-farm slaughter we could save a lot of money, because we do high-quality compost."

Some say the wording of the rule is unclear. H-515 stipulates that "the meat from the slaughter of the livestock is distributed only as whole or half carcasses to the person who owned the animal for his or her personal use or for use by members of his or her household or nonpaying guests."

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, who contracts with the Maple Hill School and Community Farm in Plainfield to raise cattle on their land, says that could rule could be interpreted multiple ways.

"In the law it says whole or half animal, and it uses both the term individual and person, which, looking through a legal dictionary looks like that could point to an individual grouping of people or a person, which is actually an incorporated group of people," the 31-year-old farmer says.

"To find one person who wants to take home four to six hundred pounds of beef, and arrange for the slaughter on their own, is a feat." -Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, farmer

These nuances got Unangst-Rufenacht into a bit of trouble with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture when he tried to sell the beef from two cows to six people. The agency temporarily retained the meat, and issued Unangst-Rufenacht a $750 fine, $250 of which is deferred. 

He says the one animal-one buyer rule is problematic:

"To find one person who wants to take home four to six hundred pounds of beef, and arrange for the slaughter on their own, is a feat," he says. "It’s not only a lot of beef to eat; it’s a lot of beef to store and pay for."

Unangst-Rufenacht admits that he didn’t actually read the law beforehand – he went by other peoples’ advice. But he stands by his interpretation.

"If I had read the law beforehand, I would have had a lot of questions," he says.

"It’s very complex," says Andrea Stander, executive director of the advocacy group Rural Vermont.

"Federal rules, state rules, animal health rules -- the way in which these things intersect is incredibly complex." - Andrea Stander, Rural Vermont

"Federal rules, state rules, animal health rules – the way in which these things intersect is incredibly complex," says Stander. "It’s very difficult for farmers and/or consumers to really understand, in some total way, how all this stuff affects them."

Randy Quenneville, meat sections program chief for the Agency of Agriculture, says he thinks the law was "fine the way it was."

Quenneville's main problem with the law is sanitation. He says the original law, which allowed for non-commercial on-farm slaughter, actually had stricter sanitation rules when it came to slaughtering for other people than the new law has for commercial on-farm slaughter.

"Before, it was pretty well laid out," he says. "Sanitation [meant] hot and cold running water, washable floors, walls, ceilings."

"Everybody wants to support the local farmer, but the local farmer doesn't want to support the local slaughterhouses, which are all local businesses just like them." - Randy Quenneville, Vermont Agency of Agriculture

Under the new law, “sanitary” is defined more loosely. 

(2) “Sanitary conditions” means a site on a farm that is: (A) clean and free of contaminants; and (B) located or designed in a way to prevent: (i) the occurrence of water pollution; and (ii) the adulteration of the livestock or the slaughtered meat.

And Quenneville says there's less enforcement, "unless somebody gets sick and you start looking at it."

Quenneville says he’d rather see more farmers build their own commercial slaughter facilities, or use the ones that already exist.

"You know, everybody wants to support the local farmer, but the local farmer doesn’t want to support the local slaughterhouses, which are all local businesses just like them."

The law requires record keeping, and the agency is starting to look into potential violations. So far, Quenneville says he’s gotten records for eight on-farm slaughters at five farms. That’s for 35 animals – but Quenneville isn’t sure about that last number. He thinks some of the forms may have been filled out incorrectly.