For far too long meat packers and large livestock dealers have put their thumb on the scale of justice when it comes to treating individual livestock producers fairly and justly.
Just four meat-packers – Tyson Foods, Cargill, Brazilian-owned JBS and Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods — control the lion's share of all meat processing in the U.S...better known as Big Meat.
Big Meat is empowered to treat producers shabbily through its use of Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rules that make it practically impossible for individual livestock producers to go to the courts when mistreated. It's been that way for decades even as the livestock industry rapidly consolidates further consolidating its power over the farmer.
The 2008 Farm Bill was supposed to be a springboard to end all this tom-foolery. It demanded that GIPSA develop new rules to identify when Big Meat goes over the line, becoming self-serving in efforts to create an unfair business environment.
The Obama Administration tried mightily to move GIPSA along but all the rules were blocked by Congressional Big-Ag toadies who successfully delayed until Barack Obama was out the door.
The new POTUS and newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue didn't waste much time in putting an all out stop on the Obama-era GIPSA rule plan. On Inauguration Day the White House postponed institution of the rules by 60 days. In October of 2017 USDA and Perdue withdrew the Obama-rules. And then for good measure Perdue buried GIPSA by putting it under USDA's Agricultural Marking Service.
Huh? More lawsuits? Would you have expected otherwise given how Big Meat has time and again has only looked out for its interests in grabbing the lion's share of profit from farmers who actually supply the meat?
Naturally there was a lawsuit. A farmers think tank named the Organization for Competitive Markets and three farmer plaintiffs say Perdue and USDA acted with “arbitrary and capricious” behavior in rolling back Obama-rules that would have made it easier for farmers to sue Big Meat.
Now there is a new Perdue led proposed rule that USDA thinks will level the playing field. Except it doesn't. You would think a new GIPSA rule would define just when Big Meat actions crosses the line creating an unfair business environment for farmers, giving producers what they need to sue. In other words what specific Big Meat abusive practices are illegal.
You would be wrong.
Incredibly the Perdue rules identifies specifically what abusive Big Meat practics could be considered legally justified.
Needless to say individual livestock producers and their trade groups have gone ballistic. National Farmers Union president Rob Larew was fairly blunt in noting the rule fails to shield farmers from Big Meat abusive practices AND makes it difficult to file lawsuits.
“We were hopeful that by more clearly defining ‘undue or unreasonable preferences,’ this administration was finally taking steps towards balancing the relationship between farmers and corporations...The Packers and Stockyards Act is supposed to protect farmers from corporations – not the other way around.”
And Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra also weighed in:
“...the proposal fails to recognize the extreme disparity between farmers and powerful meat-packers and processors, and it ratifies some of the industry’s worst abuses.”
Purdue likes to tout at stops all over the country that he's all for the individual farmer/livestock producer. But the truth is Perdue isn't all that interested in doing what's necessary to guarantee survival of the family farm. Sometimes words are telling. At a dairy expo in Wisconsin last November Perdue let slip out his true feelings before an audience of made up primarily of family dairy farms:
“In America the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
For those advocating for stronger GIPSA tools that can truly take on the abuses of Big Meat the message is forget it.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.