Rancher groups poised to fight proposed legislation
Cattle in a pasture north of Moses Lake. A pair of bills passed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry aims at making markets more transparent and would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture new authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of price-fixing among meat packers.
CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD
Staff Writer | June 22, 2022 4:39 PM
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The passage of a pair of bills designed to improve regulation of U.S. cattle and beef markets has prompted concerns among some national and state cattle ranchers organizations.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry passed the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act of 2022 and the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act of 2022, sending both measures on to the full Senate for consideration.
“We’ve been watching these close and we have our concerns,” said Mark Streuli, the acting executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the organization’s chief lobbyist in Olympia. “This is an important issue to our association.”
According to Tanner Beymer, senior director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the first law authorizes the creation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture of a special investigator to examine and prosecute allegations of price-fixing and collusion by beef processors. The second measure would require meat packers to disclose cattle purchase contracts to the USDA — which would keep track of those contracts in a library — and set a minimum for the number of cattle that must be purchased through public contracts.
Despite passing out of the committee with bipartisan support, Beymer said the NCBA opposes both bills.
Beymer said while some versions of both measures have been proposed by members of Congress for years, difficulties with beef supplies — especially the significant disparity between the low prices meat packers paid for cattle and the high prices they charged for meat — during the early part of the COVID-19 created a renewed impetus to pass them.
“There was a record gap between cattle prices and retail beef prices,” Beymer said, adding that four big meat packers — Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS and National Beef Packing — control over 80% of the market.
Beymer said, however, the proposed measure duplicates efforts already given to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service under the 1920s-era Packers and Stockyards Act, and fails to properly fund the proposed new special inspector, meaning that to fund the new office, USDA would likely have to take money from AMS’ already underfunded enforcement arm.
“It will have to steal resources,” Beymer said. “This is a bad idea, but they somehow found a way to make a bad idea worse.”
Beymer said while the NCBA supports the goals of market transparency filing cattle contracts publicly with the USDA would create, the NCBA opposes the bills because the mandates on trade percentages also put the USDA in the position to pick and choose who can have access to the market.
Streuli said that while the WCA believes bill authors and supporters are trying to improve conditions for cattle producers, Washington ranchers are generally not supportive of more government involvement in the running of cattle markets.
“At the end of the day, we never sat down and said ‘dear big government, we want you to get in the middle of our business,’” he said. “We do want to keep working with folks, but we’re not always convinced big government is the answer.”
Beymer said that while there is bipartisan support in Congress for both bills, there is also bipartisan opposition, with any bill needing 60 votes to pass the Senate. He also said the summer’s congressional calendar — with two very long recesses coming — as well as the looming fall midterm elections mean the leadership of neither party is very interested in trying to pass controversial legislation.
“We will continue to advocate against these bills,” he said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.