USDA Mulls Stronger Livestock Fair-Market Rules After JBS Attack

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President Joe Biden’s administration is considering stronger rules to protect farmers and ranchers following complaints that giant meatpacking companies are abusing their market power.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed the complaints after a cyberattack last week against a single company, Brazil’s JBS SA, briefly shut down nearly a quarter of U.S. beef processing capacity, highlighting the consolidation of the nation’s meatpacking industry.

Cattle producers were seething even before the disruption as the cost of hamburgers and steaks surged in grocery stores while prices they received for livestock barely budged, a pattern they argue is now all-too-familiar. Six cattle and farm groups last month united behind demands for action to help level the playing field.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will consider new regulations under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law Congress passed to protect farmers and ranchers from unfair trade practices, Vilsack told reporters on Tuesday. That will include reopening consideration of stronger protections that the Obama administration proposed in 2016, which were scuttled under Donald Trump and replaced by less aggressive rules.

“There are a number of rules that were promulgated at the end of the Obama administration that I think deserve a refresh and a relook,” Vilsack said. “The expectation would be over the course of the next several months that we will do just that.”

The Obama rules made it easier for farmers to show they were the victims of unfair trade practices. Vilsack said the consideration will also include a review of rules issued under Trump in 2020.

The department also announced a $4 billion USDA initiative to strengthen the food supply chain, a portion of which will be devoted to addressing a shortage of meat-processing facilities in the country, Vilsack said. Currently, four giant companies including Cargill Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. control more than 80% of the nation’s beef processing.

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