OPINION It’s been more than two years of failing to finalize a set of rules to protect American family farmers and ranchers from anticompetitive and abusive business practices from the increasingly consolidated meatpacking and processing industries. But finally the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released a long-awaited proposed rule that would more clearly define when a company has shown “undue or unreasonable preference or advantages” for one farmer over another.
The National Farmers Union is encouraged by the administration’s efforts to address the issue. But the organization is concerned about a provision that would allow customary industry practices to not be considered as an unfair preference or advantage. Lax antitrust enforcement during the past several decades has enabled the poultry and livestock industries to engage in manipulative and discriminatory practices, making those practices customary. As a result the rule could strengthen the status quo, leaving farmers with little recourse when confronting unfair but typical treatment. It’s unclear if the rule’s other provisions will provide needed protections to farmers.
I am apprehensive about the rule. I’ve encouraged the administration to move forward with greater protections for family farmers and ranchers. Family farmers and ranchers have been plagued by corporate consolidation for as long as this organization has existed – but it’s become much worse in recent decades. With almost no oversight just a handful of corporations have taken control of the poultry and livestock markets. That has made for an extremely lopsided relationship between meatpackers and processors and those who sell to them. It’s a situation where the former sets almost all the terms and the latter has no choice but to accept them. That has left farmers susceptible to substantial discrimination and abuse.
Though lawmakers have promised greater protections to farmers experiencing unfair treatment, we’ve seen very little in the way of progress. While Congress and the USDA have spun their wheels for more than a decade, farmers have continued to endure anticompetitive practices with few defenses.
After so many years of inaction it’s encouraging to see this administration take some small steps to level the playing field. But the rule doesn’t go far enough to safeguard farmers from unfair treatment. It doesn’t address many of the other difficulties farmers have been suffering at the hands of powerful corporations.
In order to provide farmers with the protections they need and deserve, we strongly urge the USDA to strengthen its definition of “undue or unreasonable preference” as well as introduce additional rules to ensure fair treatment and competition in the livestock sector.