Several communities in Montana are trying to start meat processing plants.
“They are looking into feasibility studies for either renovating an older plant or investing in a new plant, and these are homegrown community-based investigations,” said Thomas Bass, Montana State University Extension livestock environment associate specialist. “Many producers are also looking at starting custom exempt meat businesses in Montana.”
Bass explained what the custom exempt process was.
Under custom exempt, a farmer/rancher could sell a dedicated animal on the hoof to a customer, which would bypass inspected retail animals.
“You are selling a portion or the whole animal to a customer, and they pay for third-party processing at a custom exempt plant,” he said.
Bass said it was a common scenario across rural areas, because the custom exempt plants process not only livestock for customers buying from a rancher, but may also process game animals for them.
“A processing professional at a custom exempt plant is only doing custom exempt processing of livestock or seasonal processing of game animals, like deer,” he said. “A plant can do both custom exempt and regular for-retail processing, but the inspector must be present on the slaughter days. They will inspect other aspects for processing, as well, for animals and meat destined for retail sales.
For example, ranchers may hold back steers, open cows or culls, and neighbors or family members can buy the animal, or buy a 4-H animal at the county fair.
“The animal goes to the processor, and the buyer tells the processor how they want the animal cut up. A customer then pays two different people, the rancher or 4-H'er and the custom exempt processor,” Bass said. “The meat is packaged or wrapped in butcher paper, packaged as a value-added product for a pre-identified consumer, and stamped ‘not for retail sale.’ During slaughter and processing, no inspector is present, so the finished meat cannot go to a grocery store, or other retail outlet.”
The whole idea behind custom exempt is that there is a pre-identified consumer who bought the animal.
A local butcher shop may also buy carcasses or primal cuts from an inspected supply chain partner and complete additional processing under a county sanitarian’s inspection to sell retail products from the butcher shop or to local restaurants and other retail markets such as schools.
A federally-inspected plant has a federal inspector on site. That meat can go anywhere.
“Montana also has a state program and a Montana Department of Livestock inspector is on site at a plant. That meat can also go to retail stores and restaurants, but it cannot go across state lines,” Bass concluded.