In defense of on-farm slaughter
Legalities and discussion
With the exception of dairy products, red meat is probably the most regulated food in America. In the United States, there are four levels of meat inspection: federal (USDA), state, custom-exempt, and personal exemption (on-farm slaughter).
Federal is the "highest" level of inspection. The meat from animals slaughtered in a federally-inspected plant can be sold without restrictions (anywhere and to anyone), so long as the meat is properly labeled . Federal inspection includes a pre- and post-mortem inspection of the animal, along with extensive requirements for the facility in which the animals are slaughtered . A HACCP plan is required for all stages of processing.
Though state-inspection must be "at least equal to" federal inspection, the meat from animals slaughtered in a state-inspected facility is usually limited to sales within the state of slaughter . Only 27 states have state meat inspection programs. The rest of the states have turned meat inspection responsibilities over to the federal government. Producers in these states are subject to federal regulations and any additional regulations imposed by their states or counties.
Custom-exempt slaughter is exempt from continuous inspection . Facilities have sanitary and inspection requirements, but there is no pre- or port-mortem inspection of the animals. The carcasses and meat from animals slaughtered in a custom-exempt plant are stamped "not for resale" and returned to the owner. Consumption of the meat is limited to the owner and members of his household and his nonpaying guests and employees.
Federal and state regulations provide a personal exemption . The personal exemption allows a farmer to slaughter an animal (of his own raising) . Similar to custom-exempt, the meat must be consumed exclusively by the owner and members of his household and his nonpaying guests and employees .
The states interpret USDA's "personal exemption" differently. Most states take a very strict interpretation and consider the owner of the animal to only be the person who actually raised it [9,12]. The state of Illinois adds an additional requirement: the animal must be owned (by the farmer/producer) for at least 30 days in order to be exempt from inspection .
In New York, the owner of the animal is considered to be the owner when they purchase it . In other words, slaughter by the buyer is permitted. However, the seller must sell a live animal and not assist in the slaughter in any way . Offal should be properly disposed of.
The state of Vermont recently passed a law that will allow the on-farm slaughter of up to 25 sheep or no more than 3,500 lbs. (live weight) of any combination of livestock [3, 15]. The slaughter site must be sanitary and designed to prevent water polution [3,14]. The farmer cannot assist in the slaughter of the animal(s) [3,14].
For most states, the issue is not who slaughters the animal, but rather where the animal is slaughtered. Many states argue that allowing a buyer to slaughter an animal on the seller's farm is a violation of federal or state meat inspection laws, even though the seller isn't slaughtering the animal or assisting in any way. I guess these states would rather see the animal "hog-tied," thrown in a trunk, and slaughtered who knows where.
In actuality, USDA and most states (since they usually duplicate federal regulations) do not address on-farm slaughter by the buyer. Even Dr. Neil Hamilton's "The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing" fails to address on-farm slaughter by the buyer. Conclusion: on-farm slaughter by the buyer is neither legal or illegal. It is a gray area, open to interpretation or personal opinion (especially the latter).
To avoid the ambiguity in federal regulations, some states specifically prohibit on-farm slaughter by the buyer. For example, North Carolina law states that all slaughter take place in an approved facility regulated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services . The only exception is that you are allowed to slaughter an animal of your own raising .
Because meat inspection laws vary by state and sometimes county, it is essential that farmers/producers know the laws in their state (and county) and how they are interpreted (and enforced).
The "Black Market"
Despite the myriad of state and federal regulations, there is a thriving "black market" for sheep, goats, and other livestock. For some people, "Big Brother" is not going to prevent them from eating what they want, including meat from animals that are slaughtered outside the regulatory channels. Nor are they going to incur the substantially higher cost associated with having an animal processed in an inspected plant. In fact, for many lamb and goat consumers, this is the "norm" in the countries from which they come.
It can be argued that on-farm slaughter is a necessary practice in some cultures and religions and that prohibition of on-farm slaughter prevents people from practicing their religion. In some religions, the "sacrifice" of the animal may be more important than the meat itself. For example, in the Muslim religion, the meat is divided into three portions and shared with family, friends, and the poor.
When someone buys a lamb or goat, according to state and federal regulations, they are supposed to have it slaughtered in a federal or state-inspected or custom-exempt plant. But, often, there are few options for getting small ruminants, especially goats, slaughtered. There are few plants that are Halal-certified or Kosher. There are few plants that will scald the hair off a goat instead of skinning it.
Live markets, with associated custom-exempt slaughter, are one way to serve the religious community. However, substantial investment can be required to meet local, state, and federal requirements for slaughter.
On the surface, mobile slaughter units would seem to another good option for on-farm slaughter. However, the regulations governing mobile slaughter units mirror those required for a stationary plant; thus, a similar investment may be required. For this reason, there are only a handful of USDA-inspected mobile slaughter units in the U.S. Small, custom-exempt mobile units may be much more viable for sheep and goat slaughter, especially ethnic slaughter.
What should happen (author's opinion)
It is the opinion of this author that there should be an exemption for the on-farm slaughter of livestock and the sale of their carcasses and meat, similar to the one that currently exists for poultry.
USDA, and most states, allow the on-farm slaughter (and sale) of up to 20,000 birds . Interestingly, statistics show that
Subchapter I Inspection Requirements, Adulteration, & Misbranding
§ 623. Exemptions from inspection requirements.
The requirements of the Act [Federal Meat Inspection Act] and the regulations in this subchapter for inspection of the preparation of products do not apply to:
The slaughtering by any individual of livestock of his own raising, and the preparation by him and transportation in commerce of the carcasses, parts thereof, meat and meat food products of such livestock exclusively for use by him and members of his household and his nonpaying guests and employees;
poultry meat is more likely to be contaminated with the bacteria salmonella than red meat .
Similarly, few laws govern the slaughter and sale of meat rabbits. As a non-amendable species without federal statutes, rabbits can be processed and sold directly from the farm (intrastate). Some states have created laws governing the slaughter and sale of rabbits. They are usually similar to the poultry exemption.
Like poultry, the exemption for livestock should have a limitation on the number of animals that can be processed. The 25 allowed in the new Vermont law, is probably not enough, but 500 may be too many, especially since sheep and goat slaughter may be concentrated around a few times during the year (e.g. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim holidays). I suggest 100 sheep and/or goats per farm (per year).
On-farm slaughter of livestock should have some regulatory oversight, but producers should not be required to build an expensive abattoir in order to process small numbers of livestock on their farm. USDA is trying to encourage small farm success. Providing an exemption for on-farm slaughter would certainly be step in the right direction.
There are two aspects to on-farm slaughter: 1) slaughter by the buyer (usually "ethnic" buyers); and 2) slaughter by the farmer for the direct sale of meat to the consumer. Slaughter by the buyer should already be allowed. USDA already provides a personal exemption . Why should it matter who raised the animal? Providing a place for slaughter is not the same as slaughtering the animal for the customer. Animals that are slaughtered on the farm where they were born endure less stress than those that are transported elsewhere for slaughter.
Allowing producers to process animals on their farm is a different situation, as it involves the sale of meat (a highly regulated product). But it is already allowed with poultry and rabbits . If the on-farm slaughter of poultry and rabbits is acceptable to USDA, what valid argument can be made against the slaughter of livestock? USDA could decide the degree of processing that will be allowed with on-farm processing. It would be up to farmers' markets as to whether they allowed sales of farm-processed meat. Retail stores and restaurants would be faced with a similar decision. But, at least, it would give individual consumers a choice.
What about the commodity markets?
I suppose an on-farm exemption would not be favored by the commodity lamb market, as they might be opposed to anything that would siphon off lambs from the traditional marketing channels. Of course, this is already happening. According to a report commissioned by the Amercian Sheep Industry Association (ASI), 1.2 million head of sheep were marketed through non-traditional channels from 2004 to 2008 . This figure is equivalent to approximately 48 percent of federally-inspected slaughter . In other words, the "non-traditional" markets already comprises almost 50 percent of the industry. As far as goats are concerned, federal and state slaughter may represent only 50 to 60 percent of actual goat slaughter.
Another reason why the commodity lamb market may be opposed to on-farm slaughter is because it is difficult to collect check-off dollars from direct marketers. However, all U.S. sheep producers need to understand that they are legally obligated to pay the check-off regardless of how they sell their animals . The current rate is 0.07 per lb. of live animals, plus 0.42 per carcass . Thus, if a 100-lb. lamb is direct marketed or sold from the farm, 49 cents is owned to the check-off board. Seven states also have lamb check-offs. Producers in those states are obligated to submit check-off payments for the lambs they sell.
With all this said, on-farm slaughter is certainly not for everyone. There are various negative aspects associated with on-farm slaughter, such as liability and offal disposal. There are difficulties unique to on-farm ethnic/religious slaughter, such as differences in language and culture.
If an exemption were allowed, I don't see thousands of producers slaughtering and selling meat. Nor do I see producers having hundreds of animals slaughtered on their small farms. However, it would offer a fair option to small ruminant and other livestock producers, give consumers a choice, and help to reign in the "black market."
References and further reading
 Blystone Farm Direct-to-consumer Pays - Sheep! Magazine
 [PDF] The Goat Industry: structure, concentration, demand, and growth
 H. 515. An act relating to miscellaneous agricultural subjects. The Vermont Legislature.
 How it works. American Lamb Board
 Keeping it close to home: allowing on-farm slaughter for buyers - Rodale Institute
 Meat and Poultry Inspection FAQ's - Illinois Department of Agriculture
 (PDF) Non-traditional lamb market in the United States: characteristics and challenges (2010)
 Poultry Products Inspection Act
 Progress Report on Salmonella and Campylobacter... CY 1998-2012
 Q & A Meat & Poultry Inspection Division. North Carolina Department of Agriculture
 Resource Guide to Direct Marketing Livestock and Poultry - Cornell University [PDF]
 [PDF] Selling meat and meat products - University of California
 [PDF] Slaughter and processing options and issues for locally sourced meat - USDA ERS
 Federal Meat Inspection Act
 A way forward from "black market" in meat - The Common Online
This article was written in 2013 by Susan Schoenian.