On May 17, six farm groups joined voices to call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congress and the Department of Justice to ensure a “more financially sustainable situation for cattle feeders and cow-calf producers.”
That’s make-nice farm talk for “Meatpackers are skinning U.S. cattlemen so badly now that we six, not-usually-friendly groups ask the federal government — swamp or no swamp — to do something fast to save what’s left of our well-tanned hides.”
The fact that it took the farm group officials a whole day to hammer out a very modest agenda on what to do, then an entire week to agree on what to say in the brief press release, shows just how far a reach it was for some of these leaders to even shake hands.
The six groups represented at the meeting were the always first-among-equals, the American Farm Bureau Federation; its political and policy counterweight, the National Farmers Union; the big hats of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or NCBA; its archrival critic, R-CALF USA; the milder, smaller U.S. Cattlemen’s Association; and the meeting convener, the Livestock Marketing Association, or LMA.
The fact that American cattle growers can choose any one or all three national cattle groups to represent them is a well-marbled hint as to just how fractured the Beef Gang remains on farm policy, meatpackers and market integrity. Packers, in turn, have exploited those fractures to expand their power in the live animal, wholesale and retail meat markets.
For example, NCBA has openly lobbied against mandatory Country of Origin Labeling on imported beef. R-CALF, however, not only supports COOL, it has gone to federal court numerous times to try to have labeling imposed on U.S. meatpackers and retailers.
Likewise, the big farm groups, AFBF and NFU, have the same standoff: AFBF, after first endorsing mandatory COOL, now believes in voluntary labeling, something no major meatpacker has ever done nor ever will. NFU, like many ranchers, strongly — and hopelessly — supports mandatory COOL.
Longstanding splits like mandatory COOL aren’t bridged in one meeting where smiles are mandatory. In fact, despite being “committed to the ultimate goal of achieving a fair and transparent finished cattle marketing system,” COOL was not an agreed-upon “action item” by the group leaders.
Instead, they “agreed to take to their respective organizations” three far less controversial, less impactful ideas:
• “Expedite the renewal of USDA’s Livestock Mandatory Reporting” rule that requires meatpackers to make public the prices paid for cattle secured outside of public markets;
• “Demand the DOJ issue a public investigation status report and as warranted, conduct joint DOJ and USDA oversight of packer activity” and
• “Encourage investment in… new independent, local and regional packers.”
While the first item, renewal of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting rule, is important, it was likely to be done with or without a public call from six farm groups.
“Demand,” however, is a curious word to use when asking anyone, let alone DOJ, to do you a favor. It’s an even odder construction when paired with the softer request that DOJ and USDA should, “as warranted, conduct joint oversight of packer activity…”
Which begs the question: When is oversight warranted? Would it be “warranted” now when, as reported by DTN May 17, packers are pocketing a record $128 per hundredweight — or more than $800 — per slaughtered steer than what they paid cowboys for the live animal?
Yes; absolutely, in fact. So why didn’t the groups agree to make that a key “demand” in their manifesto?
The final idea, invest in new, independent local packers, is rock-solid but it also depends on heavy involvement by government for fast, effective implementation, a two-step that Congress rarely executes well.
Despite these modest actions, ranchers, cattle feeders and meat buyers will continue to get kicked in the teeth by packers until real reforms — like COOL and a diligent antitrust investigation of packers — are implemented.
Everyone in that meeting knows this; some, however, still can’t say it out loud.
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