Too Big to Fix? Commentary by Bill Bullard, CEO, R-CALF USA

Earlier this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to a congressional inquiry regarding why the federal government was still awarding meat procurement contracts to the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS, whose Brazilian parent company pleaded guilty to bribery. 

The Secretary responded by stating the removal of such a firm from government-wide procurement contracts would adversely affect competitive choices for taxpayers and would potentially disrupt school lunches and food for our military.

You don’t have to be a code breaker to know this was code for “Too Big to Fix.”

Last year, when legislation was introduced to restore competition to the nation’s ailing cattle market by requiring the Big Four beef packers to purchase at least half their weekly cattle needs in the competitive cash market, the meatpacking lobby warned the sky would fall as the largest corporate feedlots couldn’t possibly stay in business if they had to begin competing for cattle sold by America’s farmers and ranchers.

That legislation, known as the spot market protection bill or 50/14 bill, quickly disappeared … It had effectively succumbed to the “Too Big to Fix” phenomenon.

This year, several congressional champions for rural America introduced the American Beef Labeling Act (S.52) that would inform consumers as to the country of origin of the beef they purchase in their grocery stores.

But the meatpacking lobby cried foul, stating that the Geneva-based World Trade Organization had already summoned its global superpowers and declared it impossible for the United States government to put a simple, commonsense origin label on beef. 

“Too Big to Fix” was the meatpacking lobby’s mantra, and last year the consumer-friendly legislation died in the Senate and House agriculture committees.

And then when academic studies revealed that the Big Four’s favorite means of acquiring cattle from hard working American ranchers was a forward contract without a base price that not only defied competition but also afforded the largest packers tremendous leverage over the price they’d pay to cattlemen, the meatpacking lobby came to their rescue declaring that limiting such anticompetitive forward contracts would cause the sky to fall once again.  

So, yet another rope labeled “Too Big to Fix” was thrown over rural America.

Recently, a group of rural American champions in Congress introduced legislation to reform the commodity checkoff programs by preventing, for example, the tens of millions of dollars in mandatory fees paid by American cattle producers under the beef checkoff program from falling into the hands of lobbying groups.

The legislation, known as the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act or OFF Act (S.557 and H.R.1249) has been vilified as a bill that would somehow transfer control of the cattle industry to animal rights activists, and it would supposedly do this by making the beef checkoff program more accountable to the cattle producers that are forced to fund it.

Apparently, dire consequences await anyone who would dare deprive powerful lobbying groups of government-mandated checkoff dollars.

So, what’s going on here? Well, it’s actually quite simple: The dominant corporate players who benefit under the status quo do not want any meaningful reforms. They want the structure of the multi-segmented beef supply chain to remain unchanged.

The “Too Big to Fix” argument serves them well even though America recently faced meat shortages in grocery stores. Now who would want to fix that?

But all sarcasm aside, rural America has a huge problem in that just a handful of huge corporations and their lobbying arms are successfully holding Congress at bay by proclaiming there is no way to restore integrity to federal meat procurement, no way to restore the competition purged from the U.S. cattle market, no way to provide consumers their right to know where their beef was born and raised, no way to end anticompetitive contracts, and no way to make the recipients of mandatory checkoff fees more accountable to those who must pay them.

It’s been said that the corporatization of rural America’s once disaggregated and highly resilient food production system, which evolution is what ushered in the “Too Big to Fix” argument, has effectively robbed rural America of America’s conscience. Where once the economic wellbeing of farmers and ranchers and their communities on one end of the food supply chain and consumers on the other were king, now it’s shareholder profits, efficiency, and largeness of scale that Congress chooses to protect.  So, get active and become an instigator for real change. Call your members of Congress and tell them to fix rural America’s big problems and ask them to start by passing the American Beef Labeling Act, the OFF Act, supporting legislation to require packers to purchase half their weekly cattle needs in the competitive market, supporting a prohibition on forward contracts without a base price, and ask them to restore integrity to federal meat procurement by refusing to award contracts to bad actors.

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