Trump Didn’t Deliver on Meatpacking Promises, Chicken Farmers Say
Donald Trump talked tough about supporting small farmers against corporations, some farmers say. But his administration has rolled back anti-trust rules Obama enacted at the end of his administration and failed to enforce existing regulations, according to critics.
By Isaac Arnsdorf | ProPublica
via The Daily Yonder - June 6, 2019
By late 2016, many of the nation’s 25,000 chicken farmers said they had grown bitterly frustrated by the administration of President Barack Obama.
Under Obama, top officials had promised to help farmers by tightening regulations on meat processing companies, which for decades had been growing bigger and more powerful. The industry consolidation extended to beef, dairy and pork as well as poultry, but the Obama administration was particularly concerned about the effects on farmers who raise chickens on contract for giants such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.
Farmers complained that they had been lured into the business with rosy profit projections only to discover that the processing companies — which they depend on for supplies of chicks and feed — could suddenly change their contract terms to impose additional costs or drop them for any reason.
By the time the Obama administration finally pushed through the rules meant to address these problems in December 2016, Donald Trump, a Republican, had won the White House, backed by many farmers who said they had been let down by Obama, a Democrat.
Now, some say their expectation that Trump would be different may have been misplaced.
Over the last two years, Trump appointees have not only reversed the regulations put in place at the end of Obama’s presidency, they have retreated from enforcing the preexisting rules. The Trump administration dissolved the office charged with policing meat companies for cheating and defrauding farmers. Fines for breaking the rules dropped to $243,850 in 2018, less than 10% of what they were five years earlier.
“The chicken company cost me my ability to feed my children and pay our bills,” said Tony Grigsby, a retired cop in Alabama who recently quit chicken farming. Grigsby identifies as a Republican and enthusiastically supported Trump, but he said he wished Trump hadn’t scrapped Obama’s regulations. “I hear the president saying he’s doing things for the American farmer,” he said, “but it’s almost like it’s only a certain percentage.”
The White House declined to respond to questions about its decisions related to the meat industry, and the USDA declined to provide an interview with the top enforcement official. A USDA spokesman said the agency “is committed to supporting the president’s commitment to reprioritize spending and redefine the proper role of the federal government.”
The National Chicken Council, which represents the big chicken companies, has cheered the Trump administration’s rollback of the proposed regulations, saying the rules would have cost the industry — and, by extension, consumers — billions of dollars.
“Companies have waiting lists of potential farmers that want to partner with them to raise birds,” Tom Super, a spokesman for the trade group, said.
The administration’s moves underscore its ties with the meat industry. One of the largest donations supporting Trump during the campaign was a $2 million super PAC contribution from a poultry magnate, and several industry stalwarts took positions with the Trump transition team or in the Agriculture Department.
The administration’s siding with big meat companies over small farmers is already becoming campaign fodder for Trump’s opponents. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have vowed to restore the Obama-era regulations and dust off atrophied antitrust laws to break up big meat companies. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is promoting the creation of an independent agriculture regulator, akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Chicken farmers who considered themselves staunch Trump supporters say their worsening circumstances since he took office are making them reconsider their votes. Mike Weaver, a West Virginia farmer, said he gave up raising chickens this year after the company wanted him to waive his right to sue — something the Obama administration’s rules would have prevented.
“I made excuses for him for a while, thinking he’s going to eventually get a grasp on the dire situation small family farmers are in,” Weaver said of Trump. “It hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen by the next election, I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”
The main law regulating meatpackers was passed almost a century ago after a Federal Trade Commission investigation found that five companies had a stranglehold over the country’s meat supply and used it to fix prices, crush competition and defraud farmers and consumers.
The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 prohibited meatpackers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices, manipulating prices, creating monopolies or giving undue preference to particular people, businesses or places. The law’s scope expanded over the next several decades to apply to livestock dealers, live poultry dealers, swine contractors and other related businesses.
Eventually, however, courts, the Justice Department, the FTC and the USDA softened their stance on consolidation. From 1986 to 2016, the top four companies’ market share rose from 55% to 84% in beef processing, 33% to 66% in pork, and 34% to 50% in chicken, according to USDA data. Counting the fifth-largest chicken company, the top firms control 61% of the market.
The industry says consolidation has improved productivity, allowing the U.S. to grow more food using less land and labor...
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