The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has once again delayed the implementation of a rule meant to protect farmers from unfair contracting and marketing practices used by the major poultry and meatpacking companies. The rule (one of three related measures that are referred to collectively as the GIPSA rules), has languished since the 2008 Farm Bill instructed the USDA to complete it. The meatpacking and poultry industries came out swinging against the USDA’s rulemaking process, and their opposition resulted in years of delay from both the Obama Administration and Congress.
Finally, in 2015, John Oliver delivered a scathing piece on the poultry industry which seemed to shame Congress into allowing the USDA to move forward. Unfortunately, the process dragged on for so long that the rules were not finalized by the time President Obama left office. Now, the Trump Administration has been able to delay the first of the three rules until October—essentially kicking the can down the road for Secretary of Agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue, who has substantial industry ties, to deal with after his likely confirmation.
Protecting Farmers From Unfair and Abusive Practices
In the poultry industry, poultry processing companies known as “integrators” control every step of production. They own the birds, deliver the feed and dictate farm operations by forcing unfair contracts onto farmers, most of whom are deep in debt from borrowing the money to build the special barns required by the poultry companies.
The delayed rule would have made it easier for USDA to pursue cases to protect farmers from unfair, abusive and deceptive practices. Some courts have required these cases to prove not only that the poultry company harmed the farmer, but that the unfair practice damaged the entire industry — an impossible burden that diverges from the plain language of the law safeguarding farmers from rough treatment. The delayed rule would provide important clarification to ease that absurdly high burden of proof and to allow USDA and individual farmers to sue for unfair practices.
Much to the dismay of farmers, the long road to try to enact these basic protections just got longer. This fight is a classic example of how industry influence can block commonsense reforms – and why we need to fight back.
The Fight for a Fairer Food System
While supporting small farms and locally sourced food is a good start, we cannot shop our way out of this problem. Instead, we must continue to advocate for a fairer food system and for better protections for the farmers who produce the food we eat. As voters and as consumers, we must take back our political power and hold our elected officials accountable in order to build a powerful movement to fight for a food system that prioritizes our interests over corporate profits.