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House votes to create USDA meat investigator

Over the objections of Republicans, the House passed legislation on Thursday to create a USDA special investigator to enforce fair-play rules in the highly concentrated meatpacking industry. It was the most significant livestock marketing reform to advance in Congress this session.

Democrats, who combined six other bills with the special investigator proposal, said the package would combat inflation by lowering fuel and food costs. Republicans said the investigator, a career USDA employee reporting to the agriculture secretary, was the poison pill in an otherwise appealing package.

“Increasing competition will ensure livestock ranchers get a fair deal for their livestock while families get a good price for meat and poultry,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “A vote against this bill is a vote to keep the cost of gas and groceries high.”

The bill would also authorize the summertime sale of gasoline that is 15% corn ethanol and would help farmers adopt precision-agriculture technology. Ethanol, popular in the Farm Belt, is cheaper than gasoline at present. Precision agriculture allows more efficient and thriftier use of expensive seed, fertilizers, and pesticides.

The senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee derided the meat investigator’s office as “more cops for cows.” The bill was “an attempt to score political points” by blaming meatpackers for inflation but would have no immediate effect on prices, said Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson. Other Republicans said the investigator, rather than giving farmers and ranchers more leverage in dealing with the meatpackers, would harass them.

“This should be the easiest ‘no’ vote you make,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican.

Representatives passed the legislation, HR 7606, on a mostly party-line 221-204 roll call and sent it to the Senate. Seven Republicans voted for the package and five Democrats voted against it.

The Senate Agriculture Committee was scheduled to vote next Wednesday on a companion meat investigator bill, S 3870, and on a bill that would require meatpackers to buy a specified number of cattle through transactions that increase price transparency, S 4030.

Senators from the Midwest and Plains, where cash sales of cattle are common, tend to favor the price transparency bill. Senators from the Southwest, where so-called alternative marketing arrangements are popular, view it as a threat to those practices, which include production and marketing contracts.

Biofuel trade groups applauded the inclusion in HR 7606 of permanent approval of year-round sales of E15, and said motorists would save up to 60 cents a gallon by buying the 15% blend of ethanol into gasoline. Air pollution laws have barred summertime sales in most cities. President Biden ordered a temporary waiver for E15 this summer.

Three weeks ago, the USDA said it would revamp the “tournament” system that pits poultry producers against one another in a competition for revenue from processors. The proposed rule was the first of three regulations promised by the Biden administration to give producers more muscle. The others would make it easier for a producer to prove unfair treatment by a processor and update the USDA’s definitions of unfair and deceptive practices, undue preferences, and unjust practices by processors.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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