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You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way….

Go Your Own Way …. Fleetwood Mac

The 1976 hit “Go Your Own Way,” from British-American rock super band Fleetwood Mac was its first top ten hit in United States and is viewed by no less an expert than Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.  Written and sung by by Lindsey Buckingham it was a break-up song directed at band mate Stevie Nicks.

But to song could just as easily be about the federal’s court enabling of Big-Meat’s decades long break-up from the reigns of the federal Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.  

“You can go your own way….”

The PSA's intent was to stop Big-Meat in general – and Swift, Armour, Morris, Cudahy and Wilson in particular – from  stealing from ranchers and the public by manipulating live-stock prices as well as prices paid for dressed meats by creating greater competition in the marketplace.

And the PSA worked for awhile. 

Section 202 of the PSA (7 U.S.C. §§ 192 (a) and (e)) makes it unlawful for any packer who inspects livestock, meat products or livestock products to engage in or use any unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practice or device, or engage in any course of business or do any act for the purpose or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices or creating a monopoly in the buying, selling or dealing any article in restraint of commerce.

Straightforward right?

Not so fast.  

In recent years numerous courts have weighted in on whether Section 202 requires a rancher/producer to prove that the packer’s conduct actually adversely impacted competition.

In the landmark case Pickett v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. which was later upheld on appeal by the Eleventh Circuit, the courts ruled that in order to establish a violation of PSA Section 202 a rancher/producer had to prove that a single Big-Meat company’s buying practices threatened competition in the marketplace by arbitrarily lowering prices paid to sellers with the likely effect of increasing resale prices.

For all practical purposes with that ruling and others the courts mule-kicked the teeth out protections for individual packers against Big-Meat.

“You can go your own way….”

Well perhaps a day of reckoning is fast approaching.  

Last April R-Calf USA – a non-profit advocacy group for cattle and sheep producers – filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Illinois charging Big-Meat with collusion and price fixing.  Any day now the court is expected to rule on Big-Meat’s attempt to squash the lawsuit or whether it will go to jury trial.

If that’s not enough the Department of Justice has subpoenaed Big-Meats “big four” –  Tyson Foods, JBS SA, Cargill, and National Beef/Marfrig – in an attempt to learn if there’s been price fixing hanky-panky during the COVID-19 crisis.  The subpoenas come at the request of Attorneys general from North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Missouri, Idaho, and Arizona and South Dakota who collectively can’t figure out what the heck is going on with cattle prices in the last several months.

What we’re seeing defy typical market forces.  Boxed beef prices – what retail pays packers have more than doubled in recent months.  At the same time live cattle prices – what packers pay to ranchers – have dropped by at least 20 percent.  Many ranchers could flat out not get bids from packers to sell their cattle, further lowering their value and increasing feeders’ costs.

And if THAT isn’t enough central grocers in June filed their own class action lawsuit, saying Big-Meat has manipulated beef supplies since at least 2015

Want the bottom line?  Over the years the courts have failed to carry out the obvious intent of the PSA regarding price manipulation to the ultimate benefit of Big-Meat.  It’s time for the courts to correct its mistakes.  And it’s time for Congress to take a hard look at the PSA to stop Big-Meat from stomping a mud-hole all over the ranchers that feed our country.  

About Dave Dickey

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 dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.