Thursday, November 30, 2023

House Passes Meat Packing Special Investigator Act in Broader Legislation

by Colter Brown

The House of Representatives passed the “Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act” on Thursday by a 221-204 vote. The legislation incorporates a number of ag-focused bills including the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, the Butcher Block Act, year-round E15 ethanol sales, and aid to farmers in buying precision agricultural tools that help reduce the use of fertilizer.

The bill now goes to the Senate where some of the provisions will be taken up by the Senate Agriculture Committee, potentially as early as next week.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., drove the ship for much of the bill, compiling separate bills that the other House Agriculture Committee members from both parties had championed and adding it all into one bill.

“Inflation requires a response. I want to give thanks to the lawmakers in both parties who’ve worked on the legislation within this package and who’ve helped draft a roadmap for our response,” Spanberger said.

Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said in a press conference Wednesday that the legislation scapegoats private industry such as packers.

“Nothing in this bill would bring about an immediate lowering of food costs for American families,” Thompson said.

National Farmers Union on Wednesday sent a letter to Congress endorsing the bill, citing that it contains several provisions that fall in line with NFU’s “Fairness for Farmers” campaign. “It will provide relief to consumers who are increasingly pressured by rising prices due to corporate control of the marketplace and will help build our rural economies through renewable, affordable fuels infrastructure.”

Meat Packing Special Investigator

One piece of the legislation that drew fervent debate was the provision to create a special office within the USDA Packers and Stockyards Division to investigate meat packers for potential anticompetitive practices. The office of special investigator would have subpoena power to look at competition and fairness issues involving meatpackers. The office would also serve as a liaison between the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. The special investigator would have authority to bring civil actions against packers.

The House Agriculture Committee advanced the bill in mid-May. The North American Meat Institute, which lobbies for the packing industry, has criticized the bill, calling the special investigator redundant, and arguing the office and staff “would feel emboldened and obligated to bring as many cases as possible,” which would result in “legal uncertainty and market chaos.”

The Senate has an identical bill, which so far has not advanced out of committee.

House Ag Committee Ranking Member Glen Thompson said the bill won’t address the competition issues in the packing industry. He pointed to groups such as the North American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation all opposing the bill.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee countered that National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association back the bill, and that the Senate would be taking up its own version of the special investigator bill next week.

The cattle industry was also split on the bill with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association saying the measure duplicates the work of numerous federal investigative agencies who have existing authority, staff, and budget to investigate anticompetitive actions.

“Rising food, fuel, and fertilizer prices are hurting cattle producers around the country, but Congress is relentlessly focused on political posturing through this special investigator bill,” said NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane. “NCBA strongly supports fairness and transparency in the market, but Congress is wasting time with legislative proposals in search of a problem while ignoring real issues impacting cattle producers.”

Brooke Miller, president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said the bill, and cattle markets legislation in the Senate were critical for cattle producers to pass.

“Producers cannot afford to wait another calf cycle for our nation’s leaders to implement the necessary safeguards against ongoing anticompetitive and monopolistic practices in the U.S. cattle marketplace,” Miller said.

Butcher Block Act

Led by Spanberger and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., the Butcher Block Act provisions would expand on current work at USDA to increase packing and processing capacity in rural America by aiding smaller packers and meat lockers. The bill sets up a loan program at USDA Rural Development for new and expanding meat processors. It also sets up grants for entities to increase jobs or buy new equipment.

Precision Ag and Nutrient Management

Tapping USDA conservation programs in different ways, the bill provides different ways to address nutrient management problems and help farmers buy technology meant to reduce fertilizer costs.

Farmers with existing or new contracts under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) could receive up to 100% of the costs to implement new nutrient management practices or adopt precision agricultural practices. The bill would provide USDA up to $500 million over 2022 and 2023 to boost this funding for EQIP.

Separately, the bill includes the “Providing Responsible Energy and Conservation Incentives and Solutions for the Environment (PRECISE) Act” as well. This would provide loans to farmers to buy technology for precision agriculture practices, including up to 90% of the costs of the equipment.

Under the Conservation Stewardship Program, the bill would also boost payments for conservation crop rotations and advanced grazing management practices. The bill also encourages USDA to use more outside contractors as third-party advisors to provide technical assistances to farmers for cover crops, precision conservation practices and nutrient management.

Year-Round E-15

For the ethanol industry, the bill would end more than a decade of legal and regulatory battles by codifying 15% ethanol into law and deal with the technicalities of the Reid Vapor Pressure limitations that have hung over year-round E15.

The bill would simply insert the words “or more” after “10%” in law. The bill would not mandate the sale of E15 but would allow it to be sold any time of year.

Along with that, the bill also includes $200 million for 2022 and 2023 for USDA to provide competitive grants for up to 75% of the costs for companies to install or upgrade fuel pumps to allow higher blend volumes of both ethanol and biodiesel.


DTN/NCBA/USCA/Northern Ag Network

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