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Bill would provide a P&SA special investigator with subpoena, prosecutorial power

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There’s a new sheriff in town.

Or at least there might be if the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act passes the House floor after having cleared the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.

The bill would create a new special investigator office within USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division. This new USDA Special Investigator would focus on preventing shortages, enforcing America’s anti-trust laws, and holding bad actors in the meat and poultry industry accountable.  The position would have both prosecutorial and subpoena power.

Debate took place on the bill on Tuesday with amendments proposed by Republicans that did not pass. The bill itself did pass primarily on a party line vote of 27 to 21, with South Dakota Representative Dusty Johnson crossing party lines to support the measure.

It is strongly opposed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.  The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association supports the measure.

Virginia Democrat, Abigail Spanberger introduced the legislation that does have a companion bill in front of the Senate Ag Committee. Ahead of the Committee’s votes, Spanberger spoke in favor of Meat Packing Special Investigator Act and urged her colleagues to move it forward.

“Colleagues from both parties, from all regions of the country, have consistently expressed skepticism of current enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act,” said Spanberger. “We have also discussed frustration with the speed and capacity of the current investigation at the Department of Justice into the big four meat packers. We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of DOJ launching an investigation, but we have not gotten any substantive updates or answers.

“Meanwhile, America is losing a staggering 40 family cattle farms a day. We cannot continue to accept the status quo, and America’s consumers cannot continue to accept higher prices and less-secure food supply chains due to concentration.”

After its passage, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) condemned the bill as duplicative and unfunded. Arguing that to comply with this legislation, USDA would be forced to divert resources from other mission-critical areas of the Agricultural Marketing Service, taking resources from essential programs cattle producers rely on every day.

“Cattle producers strongly support effective oversight of the meatpacking sector, but the special investigator bill does nothing to accomplish that goal. Rather than focusing on adequate staffing and funding for the woefully under-resourced Packers and Stockyards Division at USDA, this hasty proposal was rushed through the legislative process without consideration of the confusing bureaucratic mess it would create. Arming USDA with unchecked subpoena and prosecutorial power while significantly undercutting the Department of Justice’s role in the process is poor practice,” said NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane.

As of FY 2018, the Packers & Stockyards Division reported having 129 staff total.  Along with its Washington agency, there are three regional offices in Atlanta, GA; Des Moines, IA; and Aurora, CO that conduct industry surveillance, investigations, and regulatory compliance reviews for enforcement of the P&S Act.

“The vote on this bill comes at a time when producers are facing record inflation, soaring input costs, labor shortages, and ongoing supply chain vulnerabilities. Congress should be working to address these pressing issues that are cutting into producers’ profitability,” said Lane.

Ranking House Ag Committee member Glenn “G.T.” Thompson said the bill is duplicative with USDA already having a division dedicated to enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act. Thompson compares the bill to what he calls harassment attempts from the Biden administration on meat packers.

 

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Rancher and ag lender Austin Havlik of Mitchell explains some farm bill priorities of the cattle industry in Valley Springs on Apr. 12, 2024. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

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