The Obama administration brought in a team in the Departments of Agriculture and Justice that promised to take on the big companies that control the food market. They held hearings across the country and collected tens of thousands of comments. But nothing ever happened and now the last of those who promised action has left.
The AP is reporting that J. Dudley Butler will resign as head of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). Reporter Christopher Leonard quotes two unnamed sources familiar with the situation.
This is big news. Butler came to GIPSA early in the Obama administration. He was a Southerner and a lawyer who had earned the trust of livestock raisers — and the enmity of the meat companies — by representing farmers in lawsuits aimed at companies such as Tyson Foods.
Butler was one of a group of anti-trust officials President Obama brought on in the early days of his administration. This included Butler and Department of Justice officials Philip Weiser and Christine Varney.
All three said they would investigate and break up monopolies in the food business. The investigations took place — the Departments of Justice and Agriculture held hearings all over the country, attended by thousands of farm and ranch families — but no actions were ever filed. And now all three have left the administration.
After being named to the administrator’s post at GIPSA, Butler told a meeting of ranchers and farmers in 2009 that he intended to “get out in the countryside. We know we have an imbalance of power in some of the industries now.”
At the Organization For Competitive Markets meeting in St. Louis, Butler gave a populist-tinged speech. He said he would take testimony from hog, poultry and cattle raisers and protect them if meat buyers objected. “I understand the concept of retaliation,” Butler said in August 2009.
Butler eventually proposed a set of regulations that would give farmers and ranchers more power in dealing with the large companies that process most of the nation’s meat. (Four companies control 80 percent of the beef market, for example.) The reforms would have made it easier for farmers to sue meat packers and would have provided poultry raisers with more protections and transparency in their dealings with the large companies that control the market.
Fred Stokes, president of OCM, described the regulations as “an ambitious and historic plan to reform the agricultural marketplace.”
Butler proposed these new regulations in 2010, but then the process bogged down. The administration allowed comments — and then extended the comment period. More than 60,000 comments were collected.
It all took 18 months, and this allowed opponents to build opposition to the proposed regulations in Congress.
In November, Congress barred the U.S. Department of Agriculture from funding the rules Butler proposed. One month later, the USDA adopted a small portion of the regulations. Most of the rules adopted affected poultry growers.
Stokes looked at the regulations the administration did make final and wrote “nothing meaningful has happened. They raised our hopes and expectations and then let us down. Corporate influence and politics have prevailed. Independent family farmers and ranchers remain alone and unprotected. Friendless.”
Bill Bullard, who heads the cattlemen’s organization R-CALF, said his organization supported Butler’s rules.
“Mr. Butler did exactly what he was appointed to do by proposing a rule that would have restricted the corporate meatpackers’ ability to exercise abusive market power against independent producers,” Bullard said in a statement. “However, the political pushback by the corporate meatpackers proved too great and the Administration that appointed Mr. Butler lost its resolve to continue supporting the key provisions in the proposed rule that would have actually restored competition. Those key provisions are now dead.
“R-CALF USA greatly appreciates Mr. Butler’s historic effort and is deeply disappointed that neither the Administration nor Congress had the fortitude or integrity to stand behind him when the corporate meatpackers turned up the heat. We respect Mr. Butler’s decision to step down as we would not expect anyone whose hands have been tied to pursue an exercise in futility.”