The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week delayed implementation of an Obama administration rule aimed at making it easier for livestock producers to sue the large meat-processing companies they contract with over abusive practices.
The USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration rule, proposed in 2010 and approved by the Obama administration in December, had been set to take effect later this month. The USDA postponed it for at least six months.
The government delay was welcomed by industry groups, including the National Chicken Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council. The groups claim the rule would welcome frivolous, “government-sanctioned” lawsuits targeting corporations, and could raise prices for consumers and put farmers out of business.
Colin Woodall, vice president for government affairs at National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said his organization wants the rule eliminated altogether.
“Our request to the Trump administration is that they withdraw this rule and throw it away,” Woodall told HuffPost. “We don’t believe there’s anything that can be done to fix it. We believe it’s bad across the board.”
Influential members of Congress agree. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, this week called the rule “disastrous.” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) similarly criticized the rule last month.
The meat industry typically contracts with farmers to raise animals until they are old enough for slaughter. Farmers, particularly those in the highly consolidated poultry industry, have increasingly accused companies like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride of deceptive and retaliatory practices.
One lawsuit filed earlier this year called the companies a “cartel” and said they have colluded to depress pay for contractors, who are saddled with high debt that threatens their businesses. The industry rejects the allegations.
“We’re hoping to bring about a change in this system,” a West Virginia farmer who has been raising chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride for 16 years, told The Associated Press this year. “It has to be done. If not, the American family farmer is going to disappear.”
Lawsuits, however, run into the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, which courts have interpreted to require an extremely high burden of proof. Farmers suing companies must prove practices they’re forced to follow affect not just one farmer, but the entire industry.
“It’s like if your house was burned down by an arsonist and you would have to show that all the houses in your neighborhood or city were impacted by that to prove you were damaged by the arson,” Paul Wolfe, senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told HuffPost. “That’s very hard to do in any case.”
The Obama rule would change that, and is long overdue, according to Barbara Patterson, director of government relations at the National Farmers Union, the nation’s second-largest farm organization.
“This rule is such common sense and such a plain-language interpretation of the regulation that it’s hard to believe that they need more time,” Patterson said. “These are pretty basic protections and there has been plenty of time to review this. It should have been put into place eight years ago.”
It remains unclear whether the Trump administration will scrap the rule. Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. A vote on his nomination has been scheduled for April 24.
Supporters said they hope Perdue’s background as governor of Georgia — the biggest U.S. producer of broilers — shapes his thinking on the rule. Georgian Zippy Duvall, who served on Trump’s agriculture advisory committee and is president of the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation, recently expressed support for some aspects of the rule.
“We hope that he [Perdue] has heard this story from the poultry farmers in his state, and hopefully that experience will help him rethink this decision that was made without him,” Wolfe said.
Meanwhile, many farmers in rural communities who backed Trump’s presidency are growing anxious his administration will renege on campaign promises to make America great again.
Sally Lee, program director at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, told HuffPost the majority of the farmers she works with voted for Trump and believed his administration would be a boon for their communities.
“They felt sure this would be a no-brainer for the Trump administration, and there’s a lot of anxiety about this,” Lee said. “There’s a feeling that this is an action that does not reflect the commitment this administration made to rural America.”
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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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