Allegations of meatpacker collusion rise as independent ranchers struggle to survive


David Murray, Great Falls Tribune (MT)

May 18, 2020


On April 17, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled out a $19 billion relief plan, ordered by President Trump, that will provide $5.1 billion in direct payments to American ranchers hit hard by more than five years of slumping cattle prices and packing plant closures.


Eleven days later the President evoked a Korean War-era law to declare U.S. meat processing plants "critical infrastructure," and shielding meatpacking corporations from legal liability for workers sickened on the job by the coronavirus.


These actions are backlit by a rising chorus of demands that the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate alleged collusion within the meatpacking industry, and bipartisan criticism of the Trump administration's decision to kill regulation meant to protect farmers and ranchers from unfair trade practices.


Rarely has so much national attention been focused upon the beef industry. While corporate packers work to restock grocery store shelves, scarcity has doubled the price of choice cuts of beef over the past two months. At the same time the price paid to ranchers and feedlot owners for cattle on the hoof has dropped nearly 30% - briefly falling below $1 per pound before rebounding slightly in the first weeks of May.


The crash in commodity prices has the potential to push many small farmers and ranchers over the edge of financial solvency.


“Without immediate assistance, many more family farms could be forced out of business, which would devastate rural communities and threaten our food supply,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. “We appreciate the administration’s commitment to help farmers weather this storm."


On May 5, 11 states' attorneys general, including Montana AG Tim Fox, signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr calling for the Justice Department to investigate the possibility that price-fixing could be the common element behind rising retail beef costs and declining producer profits.


“Given the concentrated market structure of the beef industry, it may be particularly susceptible to market manipulation, particularly during times of food insecurity, such as the current COVID-19 crisis,” the attorneys general wrote.


Decades long saga ...


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