The USDA and DOJ May Finally Address Obvious Livestock Industry Monopolies

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photo: S. Novak

Last week the USDA and DOJ met to discuss the current face of the livestock industry. The picture is grim. Let go of any false visions of idyllic farm animals grazing on the pasture and replace that image with the massive corporations that currently monopolize the industry. An overstatement it is not--currently, four companies process 80 percent of U.S. beef--that's 4 out of every 5 beef cattle. Pork is much the same with 66 percent of all pigs coming from four companies. According to Civil Eats, 500 ranchers, farmers, workers, and concerned consumers turned out for the public forum and an estimated 2,000 people in the audience the next day for the official hearing. But will anything come of it?Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder listened to grievances from a host of organizations hurt by a livestock monopoly. The top four beef companies have increased their control of the industry dramatically from 36 percent to 80 percent since 1980. As livestock monopolies close in on the remaining farms, the consumer is left to suffer the repercussions.

"It's continually been a struggle to get access to packers," said Bob Mack, 50, who runs an 800-head cattle feedlot in Watertown, South Dakota. "Livestock production has become so concentrated that it's difficult for some producers even to participate."

Many farmers at the hearing commented that they had gone out of business because they haven't found a buyer for their livestock and still others can't get a fair price and haven't been able to pay higher feed costs, according to a story on ABC News.

But it's consumers that end up paying the real prices. When eight meat producers have such control over the beef and pork industry it means that the decision of a corporation translates into decisions for our entire food supply. It's a scary proposition when it's dollar signs not public and livestock welfare that motivate an industry.

After the egg recall I wrote about what happens when an egg farmer can spread its disease to ½ billion eggs and 17 states and the meat issue is much the same, if not larger in scope. If factory farms didn't have the breadth and reach that they do today, then one farm couldn't inflict such widespread damage. Such monopolies are supposedly (I understand this is not always the case) not allowed to go on in business, so why is our nation's food system an exception? So few farms control our nation's dairy, meat, and seed industries (think Monsanto), so what now?

The USDA's New Proposed Rule
The USDA's new proposed rule would have a big impact on allowing smaller livestock producers to survive. Part of the proposed rule would make it easier for farmers to sue under the Depression-era Packers and Stockyards Act. Farmers would no longer need to prove industry-wide anticompetitive behavior to file suit. Accoding to BNET, the rule would also prevent cattle and hog buyers from paying more to big producers than they do to small ones. Additionally, it would prevent processors from making farmers take on additional debt for other equipment or upgrades unless the farmers will recoup 80 percent of the cost in doing business.

The USDA and the DOJ will meet this December to make a final decision. In the meantime, let your opinion be known here.

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