Speaking at a White House event focused on competition in agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland expressed their shared commitment to effectively enforcing federal competition laws that protect farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural producers and growers from unfair and anticompetitive practices, including the antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act. At the same meeting, the Biden administration announced $1 billion to help independent processing capacity.
The Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice released the following statement of principles and commitments:
- Farmers, ranchers, and other producers and growers deserve the benefits of free and fair competition. The Justice Department and USDA therefore are prioritizing matters impacting competition in agriculture.
- The agencies will jointly develop within 30 days a centralized, accessible process for farmers, ranchers, and other producers and growers to submit complaints about potential violations of the antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act. The agencies will protect the confidentiality of the complainants if they so request to the fullest extent possible under the law and also commit to supporting relevant whistleblower protections, including newly-applicable protections for criminal antitrust complainants against unlawful retaliation.
- The agencies will work together to promote effective information sharing and case cooperation, including processes the agencies will follow to efficiently address a complaint.
- Both agencies commit to vigorously enforce the laws that protect farmers, ranchers, and other producers and growers from unfair, deceptive, discriminatory, and anticompetitive practices. As appropriate, USDA will make reports or refer potential violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act to the Justice Department to better enable its Antitrust Division to pursue meritorious competition-related cases and to allow the agencies to collaborate on issues of mutual interest. Additionally, The Justice Department and USDA will work together to identify and highlight areas where Congress can help modernize these toolkits.
“Producers all across the country for too long have faced a marketplace that benefits a few large companies over those who are growing our food,” said Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack. “This means that consumers are paying more and farmers, ranchers and producers see less of the profits. The pandemic only further disrupted these challenges across the supply chain, exposing a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile. Antitrust and market regulatory enforcement is essential to enabling the competition necessary to transform our concentrated supply chains in favor of diversified, resilient food systems. These are complex, difficult areas of law, and our authorities are 100 years old or more, but I’m heartened by reaffirming our shared commitment to tackle these challenges together.”
The initiative received both positive and negative reviews after yesterday’s announcement.
For example, the North American Meat Institute does not believe the “The Biden-Harris Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain” addresses the true culprit of the increases in prices — labor shortages.
“Press conferences and using taxpayer dollars to establish government-sponsored packing and processing plants will not do anything to address the lack of labor at meat and poultry plants and spiking inflation across the economy,” said Julie Anna Potts, President and CEO of the North American Meat Institute. “The Administration wants the American people to believe that the meat and poultry industry is unique and not experiencing the same problems causing inflation across the economy, like increased input costs, increased energy costs, labor shortages and transportation challenges. Consumers know better. As economists predicted, producers are seeing higher prices for their cattle because packers have processed the backlog of animals in the system.” Read their full statement here.
However, other groups were supportive of the initiative, but skeptical how it will all come together.
R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said the funding announced in the plan should help increase both the number of marketing channels for America’s cattle farmers and ranchers as well as distribution channels for America’s consumers. “We recognize that this level of government involvement is unprecedented, and that it’s critical for reversing the decades of inattention, neglect and denial that facilitated the elimination of competition in our U.S. cattle industry,” he said.
But Bullard said his group remains skeptical about the plan’s strategy for addressing decades of nonenforcement of U.S. antitrust laws and the 100-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said, “Farmers and ranchers want a fair shake. The joint initiative between USDA and the Department of Justice to create an online portal to report competition law violations, and efforts to strengthen the Packers & Stockyards Act, will go a long way to ensuring fairness in the industry. More accurately defining ‘Product of the USA’ labeling will also allow families to make more well-informed decisions at the grocery store.”
You can watch the virtual meeting with President Biden and farmers, ranchers, and independent processors below.