By Doug Schmitz
CENTENNIAL, Colo. – The Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act of 2022, which was recently approved by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in a 27-21 vote, has sparked mixed reactions from several national farm groups.
“Cattle producers strongly support effective oversight of the meatpacking sector, but the special investigator bill does nothing to accomplish that goal,” said Ethan Lane, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) vice president of government affairs, in a May 19 letter to members of the committee.
Under the bill, an Office of the Special Investigator would be established within the USDA to investigate and prosecute Packers and Stockyards Act claims. The office also would have the authority to bring civil actions, a responsibility currently under the U.S. Department of Justice’s authority.
The NCBA, based in Centennial, said this new USDA position would have “immense prosecutorial and subpoena power. To comply with this legislation, the USDA would be forced to divert resources from other mission-critical areas of the Agricultural Marketing Service, stealing resources from the essential programs cattle producers rely on every day.”
“Rather than focusing on adequate staffing and funding for the woefully under-resourced Packers and Stockyards Division at the USDA, this hasty proposal was rushed through the legislative process without consideration of the confusing bureaucratic mess it would create,” Lane said. “Arming the USDA with unchecked subpoena and prosecutorial power, while significantly undercutting the Department of Justice’s role in the process, is poor practice.”
He added, “The vote on this bill comes at a time when producers are facing record inflation, soaring input costs, labor shortages, and ongoing supply chain vulnerabilities. Congress should be working to address these pressing issues that are cutting into producers’ profitability.”
But the National Farmers Union (NFU), based in Washington, D.C., charged that the bill would “increase enforcement of competition laws, and boost the USDA’s resources to investigate abusive market practices.”
Rob Larew, the organization’s president, said, “Passage of this bill is a priority for the National Farmers Union, and our ‘Fairness for Farmers’ campaign. Laws intended to protect markets from monopolies and anti-competitive practices in agriculture are not being adequately enforced.
“Greater enforcement of competition laws by the USDA will better ensure America’s independent family farmers and ranchers have a chance to succeed in today’s marketplace, now dominated by monopolies,” he added. “While there are many more measures needed to ensure a fair marketplace, the action during (the previous) week’s House Agriculture Committee markup is a big step forward.”
However, Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, also based in Washington, D.C., said: “We are disappointed in the Committee’s vote to approve this bill, despite opposition from the Meat Institute, and the nation’s largest livestock producer organizations.
“The USDA and the Department of Justice already have the authorities this bill would grant, making this expansion of government bureaucracy with its required staff and offices duplicative and wasteful,” she added. “These rules – like those previously proposed by the USDA under then-Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2010 – are likely to have far-reaching, unintended adverse consequences.”
She said, “The special investigator (and staff) would feel emboldened and obligated to bring as many cases as possible, warranted or not, to test and expand the legal limits of the new rules. The resulting legal uncertainty and market chaos will accelerate unpredictable changes in livestock and poultry marketing that will add costs to both producers and consumers at a time of high inflation.”
But Brooke Miller, president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, based in Washington, D.C., said, “While packer-allied groups blast this bill for its overreaching authority, that is precisely the reason for which the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association supports the Special Investigator Act. It seeks to provide resources to enforce the rule of law.
“For far too long, the U.S. cattle marketplace has lacked a referee on the playing field,” he added. “The role of the federal government is to blow the whistle on any illegal, anti-competitive, or deceptive market activity. This bill would give several federal agencies the authority to act cooperatively to pursue multinational corporations who fail to live up to our American values.”
In June 2021, the USDA announced plans to propose rules to “strengthen enforcement” of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
Potts said, “The expected, proposed regulations would be problematic for several reasons, including their impact on livestock producers’ options to market their cattle and hogs as they choose.
“The concepts expressed in the USDA’s announcement about the planned Packers and Stockyards rules are not new and were considered, and rejected, in the past,” she said. “When proposed, they will conflict with legal precedent in no less than eight federal appellate circuits, and will hurt livestock producers, packers, and consumers.”
The bill now goes to the full U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.