Small scale deer processors, many working out of their garages, are facing new state regulations after a law went into effect in 2020 requiring them to obtain a license through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Dairy & Meat Inspector Levi Muhl said members of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors pushed for the law change, because they believed the previous setup was unfair. They had to get a license. Why not these “custom exempt” processors skinning and butchering deer for the hunters during deer season?

“Someone down the street could be processing hundreds of deer a year without a license,” Muhl said. “They wanted to level that playing field. They actually spearheaded this legislative change and supported it, and then we helped them throughout this process.”

Muhl said that feedback on the new regulations has been split.

“A lot of the processors that we work with have been quite surprised at how accommodating we have been, and they are pretty excited about the opportunities to work with farmers to process their animals,” Muhl said. “[But] we’ve had a few that have said, ‘I’m done. You guys are making this too difficult. I’m out of here.’”

Muhl acknowledged that the transition would be difficult for many, but he and other state officials hope that the end result will be increased meat processing capabilities across Minnesota.

Reaching out

Muhl said they have worked with a number of deer processors so far in 2020.

“We’ve been doing a ton of outreach,” Muhl said. “We’re not out there to put plants out of business. We give them guidance, give them a progressive plan to get into compliance before we do any enforcement action.”

Most of the operations that they have been in contact with have required upgrades. Muhl said floors and walls need to be smooth and easily cleanable.

“Some processors [currently] have a dirt floor in a pole building,” Muhl said. “We need some sort of non-porous type floor. If you’ve got a concrete floor, that would be perfectly acceptable.”

He said there is a requirement to have a separate equipment wash sink separate from a hand wash sink, hot and cold running water, and a way to keep the venison cold.

“You have to have some sort of mechanical refrigeration at some point,” Muhl said. “Most plants rent freezer trailers and throw the deer in there. In a season like this where it was very warm, storing them on a shelf in the garage, that product could spoil quite rapidly. It does not have to be a walk in. It has to be cool and freeze products efficiently.”

They should also have an approved method for disposal of the carcasses. Muhl said that one of the reasons the DNR supported the regulatory changes for deer processors was to ensure responsible disposal of the carcasses and prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease. 

“Our requirements are pretty open-ended, Muhl said. “They’re not nearly as strict as restaurant or other retail market requirements. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant.”

License and enforcement

Deer processors who don’t follow the new rules will face consequences. 

“Our main focus is working with them ... whatever it takes to get them licensed,” Muhl said. “If we do run across plants that are resistant to licensing, we would certainly implement any of our administrative enforcement procedures, as we would any other meat or slaughter facility that is unlicensed, whether they’re making jerky unlicensed and selling it to a grocery store or slaughtering animals without being licensed.”

He said that after an investigation they would start off with a warning letter, which would point the producer toward resources that would help them get into compliance. If the producer continues to do business without complying, the maximum fine would be $1,500 per sale per day. 

Muhl emphasized that fining a business would be a last resort. 

“We would really have to exhaust all of our warning letters and outreach opportunities and ... every opportunity to come into compliance,” Muhl said. “We want to increase processing. We want to help them along.”

Challenges, Opportunities

He pointed out that, even though the processor would still not be able to sell the meat they produce, there will be new opportunities once they receive a custom exempt license. 

“Now that they’re licensed, they can be processing livestock, which will increase the processing capacity in Minnesota, and that’s what we’re looking for, especially in these COVID times here,” Muhl said. “The [meat] would go right back to the farmer for their personal use. Also, if they’re licensed, they can participate in the venison donation program. They get reimbursed their actual cost for processing a deer, and it gets processed and donated to a food shelf.”

He noted that once they are licensed, processors may be eligible for MDA grant programs to fund equipment purchases to build their business.  

Muhl encouraged processors wary of the new regulations to reach out to his office. He said they have already licensed a handful of places which have all the requirements in place.

“Then we set them up with local meat inspector, or meat supervisor in the area to come and visit – not to shut them down, but as a consultative visit, and say these are the things we’d like to see upgraded,” Muhl explained.

“We want to increase the processing capacity in Minnesota,” Muhl said. “By all means, we do not want to decrease it. So we are willing to help along this process.”

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