Not-so-great Expectations

March 4, 2011 10:58 AM
Not-so-great Expectations

Actions resulting from what the USDA and the Department of Justice (DOJ) learned in the series of workshops on competition in U.S. agriculture might not be as public as the sessions themselves.

The final workshop, held at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., included a public comment period that was marked by calls for action, such as cracking down on retailers and immediate implementation of the proposed rule by USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).

Officials, however, were less than specific on what to do with the information they gathered.

Was It Worth It? When talking with reporters, officials took exception to tough questions. One reporter asked what resulted from the workshops besides a rule on poultry marketing, and if they were just "hand-holding" for small farmers.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the poultry marketing rule wasn’t the only result, noting that USDA received 57,000 comments on the proposed GIPSA rule.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said they weren’t "hand-holding" and that DOJ would use the information from the meetings "as the basis for further action." He didn’t specify what that might entail.

DOJ Antitrust Chief Christine Varney chimed in that her agency would use the information to "enforce the laws that exist" and that she now has a better understanding of what is going on in the nation. She also noted that not all actions at the DOJ can be "transparent," as some involve investigations.

Varney said the meetings resulted in a poultry producer calling the DOJ with a complaint, saying he had made adjustments to and investments in his operation based on what a buyer had wanted, only to have the buyer back out. Varney said her agency got in touch with both parties and worked out a solution "short of litigation."

What to Expect from the Workshops

GIPSA rule. The GIPSA rule mentioned by Vilsack might be the most publicly available action linked to the workshops, since some of the public input will work its way into the final version of that rule. Those on both sides of the issue said that given the volume of work GIPSA has to wade through, the final version of the rule might not be made public until the summer of 2011.

More behind-the-scenes work. While DOJ officials stressed they can’t be "transparent" about investigations, they made it clear they will take action, as evidenced by the story related by Varney. That suggests the impacts of these sessions won’t necessarily be fodder for press releases, at least not from the DOJ. And it’s still not clear—at least not from the comments made by officials at the sessions—just what the DOJ will do in response, except perhaps to do its job. After all, enforcing the laws that are on the books is its primary responsibility.


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