WASHINGTON – Three US lawmakers introduced a bill that would install a special investigator within the Packers and Stockyards Division of the US Department of Agriculture to probe anticompetitive activity in the meat and poultry industry.

The Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, created by Senators Mike Rounds (R-SD), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would create the Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters. The new USDA special investigator will have a team of investigators, with subpoena power, tasked with preventing and addressing anticompetitive practices in the meat and poultry industries by coordinating and acting in consultation with the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Lawmakers also intend for the office to serve as a bridge between the USDA and the Department of Homeland Security to safeguard the US food supply against interruptions.

“Increased consolidation is driving concerns about competitive market access for Iowa livestock producers,” Grassley said. “The recent cyberattack added to existing vulnerabilities in our food supply chain, underscoring the importance of protecting the livelihoods of our family farmers. Food security is national security. This bill provides USDA with the necessary tools to beef up enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, increase coordination with DOJ, FTC, and DHS and to foster a fair and functional marketplace for farmers and consumers alike.”

The legislation comes in response to the recent cyberattack on JBS USA. The company paid $11 million in ransom after hackers breached the company’s servers in North America and Australia. JBS USA and Pilgrim’s Pride were able to limit the loss of food produced during the attack to less than one days’ worth of production, however lawmakers argue that consolidation in the meatpacker segment has made the entire US food supply chain vulnerable to attacks and harmed livestock producers.

“For years, unfair, anticompetitive practices in the meat packing industry have hit Montana ranchers where it hurts the most – in the wallet – and put our rural communities and family agriculture way of life at risk,” Tester said. “On top of that, corporate consolidation is a direct threat to our national security, because a single cyberattack that threatens the very food we eat is proof that something must be done, and fast. That’s why this bill is so important — it devotes the needed tools to USDA to shore up our national security and address anticompetitive practices in the industry that threaten Montana ranchers and consumers.”

Rounds said consumers are paying over-inflated premiums for beef while cattle producers “are going broke” because of consolidation of meatpackers.

“Congress knew in 1921 what we know today – anticompetitive behavior in the meat packing industry hurts both consumers and producers,” Rounds said. “Unfortunately, packer concentration in the beef industry is more consolidated today than it was when the Packers and Stockyards Act was first signed into law 100 years ago.”

The bill text can be found here.