WASHINGTON — During the latest White House Competition Council on Sept. 26, President Joe Biden announced two US Department of Agriculture efforts to promote competition in the meat and poultry markets.

The agency’s first initiative will be publishing the proposed Inclusive Competition and Market Integrity Rules Under the Packers and Stockyards Act to protect farmers and ranchers from abuse.

Next, the administration wants to provide a $15 million Agricultural Competition Challenge so more collaboration would happen between State Attorneys General (AG) on enforcement of the competition laws, such as the laws against price-fixing.

“Highly concentrated local markets in livestock and poultry have increasingly left farmers, ranchers, growers and producers vulnerable to a range of practices that unjustly exclude them from economic opportunities and undermine a transparent, competitive, and open market — which harms producers’ ability to deliver the quality, affordable food working families depend upon,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is a member of the White House Competition Council. “USDA is focused on building new, fairer and more resilient markets, protecting producers and reducing food costs, and we are proving again today that we will use all tools at our disposal to do so.”

According to the USDA, the modernization of the Packers and Stockyards Act would prohibit undue prejudice, unjust discrimination and deception to provide for clearer, more effective standards to govern the modern marketplace. 

“The Inclusive Competition and Market Integrity proposed rule would revise regulations under the P&S Act by prohibiting certain prejudices and disadvantages against covered producers in the livestock, meat and poultry markets,” the agency said. “The regulations would prohibit retaliatory practices that interfere with lawful communications, assertion of rights and participation in associations, among other protected activities — such as retaliating against a farmer or rancher for blowing the whistle on price-fixing.” 

The new regulations would also help identify unlawfully deceptive practices that violate the P&S Act that pertains to contract formation, contract performance, contract termination and contract refusal.

Other stipulations of the proposed rules include prohibiting prejudices and disadvantages against covered producers. Specifically, the proposed rule seeks to protect “market vulnerable individuals” who are those at heightened risk of adverse, exclusionary treatment in the marketplace, which may include based on their race, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation.

Next, the proposed rule would prohibit retaliatory practices that interfere with lawful communications, the assertion of rights and associational participation, among other protected activities. 

Other areas the rule will look at include recordkeeping requirements to support the evaluation of regulated entity compliance. This includes the ability to inspect relevant records like policies and procedures, staff training and producer information materials, data and testing, board of directors’ oversight materials, and other relevant materials.

This rule will soon be published in the Federal Register and made available for public comment. A preview of the rule is available on the Agricultural Marketing Service website

Once published, stakeholders and other interested parties will have 60 days from the date of publication to submit comments via the Regulations.gov web portal. All comments submitted will be considered as USDA develops a final rule.

The agency also provided more details in its second announcement regarding the enforcement of competition laws by state attorneys general (AG) to partner with USDA on issues in the food and agriculture space. The USDA allocated up to $15 million in funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) for this effort.

“Through a combination of renewable cooperative agreements and memorandums of understanding, these new partnerships will assist state AGs in tackling anticompetitive practices in the agricultural sector and related industries that are contributing to heightened inflationary pressures, lack of choices for consumers and producers, and conflicts of interest and anticompetitive barriers across the food and agriculture supply chains.” The USDA said.

The initiative and resources will allow attorney generals to conduct on-the-ground investigations of competition issues, according to the agency. 

At the beginning of 2022, The USDA and the US Department of Justice said they would start developing a centralized process for farmers, ranchers, and other producers and growers to submit complaints about potential violations of the antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act. 

People can now report any suspected violation of federal competition law here