Congress could beef up meatpacking oversight this fall. But obstacles to enforcement remain.

Bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate would add lawyers in the USDA to prosecute complaints under the Packers and Stockyards Act. Experts and advocates have said the law has been weakened over the previous decades.


By Aruni Soni, Investigate Midwest

Aug 4, 2022


A century ago, Congress wrote a law intended to counteract unfair business practices in the meatpacking industry.


Fast forward to 2022: Just four companies control more than half of the beef, pork and poultry markets, and the meatpacking industry has fielded lawsuits alleging abusive behavior. The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 largely has failed in what it was supposed to accomplish, legislators and fair market advocates said.


However, new bills before the U.S. Senate aim to reinvigorate the act.


At a time when there’s greater scrutiny at the federal level on consolidation in the meatpacking industry, the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act of 2022 would create an Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters in the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with enforcing the 1921 law.


While experts said broad problems remain in enforcing the law, the potential new office is seen by advocates as a step in the right direction. Ultimately, the bill strives to boost regulation of an industry riddled with allegations of price manipulation and producer exploitation.


“You've got these massive companies that are profiting from practices that are in fact illegal,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D - Virginia), author of the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of the bill, told Investigate Midwest. “We see ever-increasing concentration within the meatpacking industry. And it's the cycle that continues: We know that there are these violations, but the structure to actually really go after them and just enforce the existing law just isn't strong enough.”


The 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act was written to protect farmers from “unfair” or “discriminatory” practices. That includes companies not paying for a farmer’s livestock or inaccurately weighing their poultry. Violations of the act can lead to, among other things, suspension of business operations.


If the new bill becomes law, the USDA would hire 10 new attorneys and other professionals to help litigate violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act.


Representatives of the meatpacking industry fervently oppose the legislation, arguing it would duplicate existing efforts in place.


“If there is a problem that must be addressed,” Congress should not do it “by expanding the government with new, redundant offices and authorities,” said Julie Anna Potts, president of the North American Meat Institute, the meatpacking industry’s lobbying organization.


The National Pork Producers Council agreed: “The proposal to create a new, politically appointed position at USDA that takes the authority to bring civil action from the DOJ establishes a series of complications with the enforcement structure of the Act, all under a fundamentally flawed premise of urgency.”


Neither organization responded to multiple requests for comment over the past several weeks.


Spanberger introduced the bill in May, and it passed the House on June 16. Sen. Jon Tester (D - Montana) introduced a companion bill in March that also passed the Senate Agriculture Committee in June. It has 12 co-sponsors evenly divided along party lines. The bill has not been debated in the Senate yet, but advocates say it could come up for a vote this fall.


In the House, support for the bill was split along party lines, with many Republicans voting against it. Republicans have argued the bill would increase bureaucracy and is a misguided attempt to build supply chain resiliency.


"I think there's a fair amount of frustration with the idea that the solution on the Democratic side was always about more insight into the operations of a private business and, you know, more regulation,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R - South Dakota), who voted in favor of the bill, said. “I think there's some natural skepticism on the Republican side of the aisle over those kinds of solutions."


Spanberger’s bill is the latest of many attempts to revitalize the act. While the special investigator’s office would address a lack of resources and expertise, there are other, more ingrained issues with enforcing the act, experts said...


Renewed attention on a consolidated market ...


History of lax enforcement ...   


A larger problem beyond enforcement ... 


Weakened regulations after Trump elected ... 


2017 USDA org chart ...


Current USDA org chart ...


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