POLITICO: Pressure building to tap USDA special investigator for meat market disparities

POLITICO, RYAN MCCRIMMON

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is joining the push to designate a special investigator at the Agriculture Department focused on antitrust issues in the meatpacking industry.

Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) plan to introduce legislation on Wednesday that would create a “special investigator for competition matters” within USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division, which monitors the meat processing sector for unfair trade practices and monopolistic behavior that can harm producers and consumers.

The bill would be a companion to the Senate measure filed earlier this month by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), first reported by POLITICO. 

Pressure is building in Washington to address the heavy concentration in meat and poultry processing after a series of recent supply chain disruptions caused retail meat prices to soar. USDA is already drafting three rules to tighten oversight of competition in the meat sector, while the Senate Agriculture Committee will meet this afternoon for a hearing on the disparity in livestock markets.

The most recent disruption was a ransomware attack that shut down JBS beef plants across the country — which together process almost a quarter of all cattle in the U.S. — causing wholesale beef prices to immediately rise.

In a statement to POLITICO, Spanberger said the JBS hack “shed light on just how precarious the security of our meat and poultry processing industry truly is — and it underscored how continued consolidation within this industry is jeopardizing the stability of our nation’s food supply.”

Miller-Meeks added that the century-old Packers and Stockyards Act “must be strictly enforced to address the rampant anti-competitive practices in our meat and poultry industries.”

The proposed special investigator would be appointed by the Agriculture secretary and granted subpoena power. The new office would include a team of investigators tasked with enforcing current antitrust laws in coordination with the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission.

It would also serve as a link to the Department of Homeland Security on national security threats to the food system.

Tester earlier this month said the bill is an attempt to “put some teeth” into existing antitrust rules, which he claimed aren’t being enforced.

The North American Meat Institute, which represents meat processors, said at the time that livestock prices are following normal supply and demand factors, such as labor constraints that were exacerbated by the pandemic. The group argued that a severe drought, high feed prices and other factors are also weighing on cattle prices.

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