It was July 20, 2010 and USDA officials were nervously defending legislation at a hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry. Most of the congressmen come from farm states, had ranches of their own in the family and had filled their re-election accounts with money from the very companies fighting the proposed laws.
The controversy started when the USDA tried to level the playing field for poultry farmers and ranchers using the agency’s authority under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law whose power to give growers a fair deal had been growing thinner by the decade. The congressmen bristled at the provisions, which members said usurped the power of Congress. Now those provisions were back.
It’s worth noting that at the time President Obama was looking at whether Big Ag was violating anti-trust laws. Even as the USDA officials were sweating it out, their boss, Tom Vilsack, was touring rural states across the country with the head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, and his anti-trust chief Christine Varney. Obama had sent them out to hear from farmers and ranchers about how to restore competition and fairness to farming. The trio of the USDA and DOJ was the last combination Big Ag, the packers and producers, wanted to see working together. They quickly dispatched their lobbyists. You could hear echoes of the industry’s lobbyists in the comments and questions of the subcommittee on July 20. One of the lawmakers said he regretted that farmers were having to consolidate in order to stay on the land but that’s just the way it is. Get big or get out. As The Grist’s Tom Laskawy put it, “To say this was a lost opportunity is a vast understatement. After all, the top four companies control 90 percent of all beef processing. In the case of pork, four companies control 70 percent of the processing, while for poultry it’s nearly 60 percent. When you get that kind of market power,* abuse becomes rampant. Indeed, ranchers all around the country now agree that it’s impossible for them to get a fair price for livestock.”