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Published December 14, 2010, 09:04 AM

Restoring fair competition

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder held the last of five workshops on competition in agriculture Dec. 8 without announcing any big policy shifts or antitrust cases, but Vilsack and Holder said the workshops had resulted in a better working relationship between the two agencies that will help ensure a fair and competitive agricultural marketplace.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder held the last of five workshops on competition in agriculture Dec. 8 without announcing any big policy shifts or antitrust cases, but Vilsack and Holder said the workshops had resulted in a better working relationship between the two agencies that will help ensure a fair and competitive agricultural marketplace.

Vilsack noted that the Agriculture and Justice departments already have established a new process to handle complaints for unfair and deceptive practices in the poultry industry and that USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration last summer published a proposed rule designed to increase fairness in the marketing of livestock and poultry.

Big producers and agribusiness have objected so vigorously to that rule, however, that there have been 57,000 comments filed on it. Vilsack said all the comments will carefully be reviewed the final rule is issued.

At a news conference, Holder said, “This not a hand-holding exercise designed to generate favorable publicity. We have done concrete things. There is a promise that comes out of what we have done.”

Addressing antitrust issues

Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney noted that the Justice Department has investigated Dean Foods for antitrust violations and said USDA and Justice will more closely consult on proposed mergers, particularly vertical integration, in agricultural businesses. Critics say mergers decrease the number of agricultural suppliers and potential purchasers of commodities and animals.

Vilsack repeated previous statements that he fears consolidation in all agricultural sectors has led to population loss in rural America and said the Obama administration is determined “to ask questions and shed light on issues that frankly have not seen light in many years.”

Holder, who frequently has mentioned his city roots during the workshops, said that farming “has defined who we have been as a people” and said it is important to maintain farming so “it will define who we will become.”

Vilsack noted that Holder may be the first attorney general to come to the Agriculture Department headquarters to discuss antitrust issues.

Holder said the workshops, which have included sessions on seed concentration on hog market issues in Ankeny, Iowa, poultry issues in Normal, Ala., dairy issues, in Madison, Wis., livestock markets in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Washington session on margins, particularly in retail grocery stores, “ are “not the final chapter” in the USDA-DOJ collaboration.

“As our conversations carry forward, I expect that our enforcement efforts will continue to be sharpened and strengthened.”

A coalition of consumer and farm groups organized by Food & Water Watch, some of whom testified at the workshop, said in a news release, “The American food chain is shaped like an hour-glass where a handful of large powerful companies stand between more than 300 million consumers and two million farmers.”

The groups said the Justice Department should review large agricultural mergers in the past decade, the Federal Trade Commission should join the USDA-DOJ interagency task force and USDA should finalize the proposed GIPSA rule.

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