While the big news among good food activists has been the unsettling possibility that a secret farm bill could be snuck into the super committee's recommendations and passed with no public input, Republicans have furtively dealt a crippling blow to family farmers and consumers. This week, House Republicans included language in a budget bill that gutted the fair livestock rules that have languished for more than 80 years. Once again, Big Meat has derailed the commonsense protections that allow small livestock producers to compete and check the abusive practices of the poultry industry.
The 2008 Farm Bill included reforms to protect small and medium-sized farmers who raise cattle, hogs, and chickens from unfair treatment at the hands of meatpackers and poultry companies. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration proposed rules (known as the GIPSA Rule, after the agency) to protect poultry and hog farmers from unfair contract terms -- like retaliating against poultry and hog growers who speak out about abuses -- and ensured that cattle and hog producers could get a fair price from meatpackers for their livestock.
Nearly three years later, the fair livestock rules have been shredded and there is plenty of blame and shame to go around. The Obama administration failed to show leadership on this issue and reneged on President Obama's campaign pledge to "fight to ensure family and independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices."
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack caved to meatpacker money and power by issuing significantly watered down rules -- after nearly 18 months of foot dragging to issue the final rules at all. USDA's final proposal indefinitely postponed any efforts to protect independent cattle and hog farmers and issued a much weaker set of protections for contract chicken and hog farmers. Many Democratic Senators on the Agriculture Committee -- including Chairman Debbie Stabenow from Michigan -- stood on the sidelines and refused to stand up for livestock producers in their states.
But the final attack came from the duplicitous House Republicans who included sneaky language in the agriculture appropriations bill that prevents USDA from finalizing or developing any rules on livestock markets and only allows the pending rules to address a few of the crucial reforms to poultry contracts. This essentially means that House Republicans, who claim to believe in a "free-market," have empowered the meat industry to rig a competitive market through unfair and anti-competitive practices that are widespread in the livestock industry. While they mouth support for family values, small businesses and the family farmer, their failure to allow the fair livestock rules to be implemented is two-faced and un-American. The policies they have supported by doing so will drive even more small and midsized independent producers out of business and increase the monopoly power of the meatpackers.
By prohibiting USDA from finalizing the fair livestock rules, House Republicans didn't just vote against a new regulation that would have prohibited commonplace abuses in the meat industry. They voted against the family livestock producer by signing off on:
• Unfair and deceptive practices
• Abusive contracts
• Retaliation against farmers who speak out about abuses
• Sweetheart deals for factory farms that receive higher prices for livestock than independent farmers
• Secrecy so diabolical that it forbids the USDA from providing farmers with sample contracts that have fair terms and pricing.
Farmer and consumer advocates will not give up the battle to prevent the rapacious meat industry from destroying family farms and the future for a sustainable food system. The next farm bill must ensure that farmers are paid fairly and prevent meatpacking and food processing companies from running roughshod over farmers and consumers. It's time for those who talk about the market with reverence, but who support non-competitive practices to stop being hypocrites. Our coalition is hopping mad and don't think for a minute we are going to let Big Meat and complicit politicians get away with this outrage.
A version of this story also ran on Civil Eats