Last week, the USDA quietly advanced three new “Farmer Fair Practice” rules to protect farmers who raise meat and poultry and to reinforce its antitrust authority over the handful of companies that dominate America’s meat industry.
USDA’s move is a long-awaited sign of progress for farmers and ranchers who, as we’ve written about, work in an industry that has rapidly consolidated and become increasingly dominated by a handful of corporate players. The industry as a whole has shifted from a constellation of many independent growers to a vertically integrated system where fewer and fewer farmers produce under contract with a few major companies.
The text of the rules has not been released yet, so we don’t know the details, but we do know that two of the rules are “proposed” measures that will require public comments before taking effect. The first would govern the chicken industry’s “tournament” system of payment, which pits poultry growers against one another for pay. The other addresses the “undue preference” that companies often afford to certain producers, to the exclusion of others, despite producing the same quality in product.
The third rule is an “interim final” rule (and the most significant of the three) that is more readily poised to become the law of the land. This rule would make it easier for farmers to sue meat companies for unfair practices, needing only to prove they were treated unfairly by a company to secure legal remedy. Currently, farmers must also prove that any harm to themselves or their businesses also impacted competition throughout the entire industry to win their cases. If that sounds a bit nutty, that’s because it is. And extremely unfair.
A long twisted history
The story of much-needed reforms in the meat and poultry industries is decades long. The latest chapter started back in 2010, when farmers and ranchers came forward to testify at joint workshops hosted by the Department of Justice and USDA that were intended to examine competition and fairness in agricultural markets. When USDA issued rules in response, meat companies exercised all the moneyed muscle they could – spending millions in lobbying dollars to influence Congress to attack USDA’s ability to enforce or issue rules.
Meat companies exercised all the moneyed muscle they could – spending millions in lobbying dollars to influence Congress to attack USDA’s ability to enforce or issue rules.
But the people finally won out last year, thanks in large part to unprecedented media coverage that exposed the meat lobby’s efforts (see our July 2015 piece: John Oliver, Willie Nelson, Poultry Farmers and YOU), when Congress removed its blockade on the rules.
What you can do
While we are glad to see these rules finally move forward, we remain concerned that they’re already being attacked by the big companies who rule the roost. That’s why we need to do all we can to keep the pressure up.
A good start? Send a big thank you to Secretary Tom Vilsack for the new Farmer Fair Practice Rules. And, stay tuned for more opportunities to take action in the coming weeks.