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Er, livestock and meatpacking. (New industry reforms are afoot!)

Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates - Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The White House Calls for Livestock Industry and Meatpacking Reforms.

President Biden, along with the Secretary of Agriculture and Attorney General, convened a meeting and discussion at the White House yesterday to discuss actions the Biden administration is taking for “greater competition in beef, pork and poultry processing.”

Biden announced his so-very-wordy “Administration’s Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain.” For a journalistic synopsis of the event, check out DTN/Farm Progress Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton’s excellent reporting: White House Moves Against Big Packers.

The specifics of the plan include spending $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for expansion of independent processing capacity, as well as commitments to strengthen and enforce antitrust laws. USDA says that spending is needed to:

  • Expand and diversify meat and poultry processing capacity;
  • Increase producer income;
  • Provide producers an opportunity to have ownership in processing facilities;
  • Create stable, well-paying jobs in rural regions;
  • Raise the bar on worker health, safety, training, and wages for meatpacking jobs;
  • Spur collaboration among producers and workers;
  • Prompt state, tribal, and private co-investment; and
  • Provide consumers with more choices.

The statistics analyzing the problems with meatpacking consolidation, corporate concentration and corporate power over family farmers in agriculture markets were right out of the playbook of the family farm movement I’ve been part of for 25 years. The basic story is that family farm income from livestock production has declined (along with the number of livestock farmers) as consumers have had to pay more for meat at the grocery store, all while corporate meatpackers have increased their profits.

Most family farm and rural advocacy groups welcomed the meeting and announcement, including National Farmers Union, Family Farm Action Alliance, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and RuralOrganizing.org among others.

Like their stances on other issues, I am pleasantly surprised that the Biden administration has taken this position in such a focused and public manner. I agree that this plan is a good start, and has real potential to solve some problems facing family farmers and create jobs in rural America. So I appreciate the work on these issues that have gotten such little attention at the White House level since the 1980s.

That said, I will remain skeptical about the promises on antitrust enforcement and commitment to restoring the Packers and Stockyards Act until some actions are taken. The Obama Administration famously fumbled these issues from 2009-2016 with many of the same players (including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack), so there’s not a lot of—pardon the term—trust at this point.

My main question remains: are the White House, Justice Department and USDA going to actually take on corporate meatpackers like JBS, Smithfield and Tyson, maybe even aggressively fining them and breaking them up? Without upholding that end of the bargain, this plan is “all carrot—no stick.” The $1 billion investment in new processing capacity, if not directly supporting locally-owned and truly independent geographically diverse meat processors, could end up building capacity that the corporate meatpackers end up buying out in the future. I watched this happen (and sometimes participated) many times in the late 1990s and early 2000s when numerous farmer-owned cooperatives got up and running, only to get bought out for pennies on the dollar by larger, deeper-pocketed corporations. That’s a real possibility here too. And the ARPA funding being used for these investments does appear to be a shift toward larger facilities than previously discussed priorities, unfortunately.

I would also add that meatpacking worker issues were hardly addressed, especially issues of pay, benefits, worker health and safety, and citizenship fixes for migrants. Climate issues were largely ignored. And there was no nod to the real structural problem of retailers (like Walmart and other grocers) actually increasing their share of the “food dollar” much more than corporate meatpackers have in the last 20 years. Retailers should be part of a comprehensive strategy as well. We’ll keep watching this one, Keep It Rural readers, and let you know if the effort results in promises kept and real change made. Let’s hope that there’s actually meat on the bones of this announcement.

Rural Reading List

Onward from potential livestock reforms, we’re kicking off 2022 with a solid reading list, including more on federal investments leading to positive change in rural areas. I invite you to check out the following stories:

This Daily Yonder profile on a kitchen food business incubator in East Tennessee explores how local election results can be a challenge for publicly-funded business development efforts.

A very interesting analysis of how ready different states are to put that federal funding for rural high-speed internet to use in their local communities.

This story from Louisiana highlights another infrastructure problem—this time water and sewage systems—where federal funding is the key to delivering better services for rural people.

"Despite stereotypes, there's really only one characteristic they all share: They hate being told what to do." This is a must read commentary from Michelle Nijhuis, who knows a thing or two about rural people.

One More Thing: Data Gaps on Food Security in Indian Country.

The Daily Yonder published an important piece from Kristi Eaton today, Covid-19 Pandemic Increased Food Insecurity Among Indigenous Communities in the U.S.,” that lays out the persistent problem of food insecurity and hunger in Native American Reservations and Tribal Communities.

Eaton highlights a critical report, “Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis: Insights from Case Examples and a Survey of Native Communities’ Food Access During Covid-19,” put together by the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas.

In short, food assistance programs need some additional resources and basic reforms to better serve Native Americans. Hopefully the report and follow-up from political leaders can result in some meaningful improvements in these rural places.

Happy Tuesday, Keep It Rural readers. Stay warm out there, and we’ll see you next week.

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