Lincoln Journal Star: Pork packer bill passes as lawmakers vote to shed state’s unique ban

February 6, 2016

Pork packer bill passes as lawmakers vote to shed state’s unique ban


Nebraska will shed its unique ban on meatpacking corporations owning hogs following a contentious vote Friday in the Legislature.

Supporters of a measure to eliminate the ban (LB176), sponsored by state Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, said opening Nebraska’s hog market to companies like Smithfield and Tyson Foods should make the state more competitive with its neighbors and allow new pig farmers to enter the business without assuming the financial risks of ownership.

Opponents warned the change could have a devastating effect on the state’s existing pork producers and harm the environment by leading to more big hog confinement facilities.

They also accused lawmakers of buckling under influence from lobbyists backed by corporate agriculture.

"Money wins over the will of the people," John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union said after the vote. "Money won this."

Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the bill following two hours of debate Friday, first ending a filibuster of the measure, then passing it, both on 34-14 votes. The bill had already advanced through two rounds of debate.

When it takes effect, the change will undo the pig portion of a 1998 law that makes it illegal for packers to own swine or cattle in Nebraska for more than five days before slaughter. Other Midwestern states had adopted similar bans but have since eliminated them.

Nebraska will now join those states in allowing meat processors like Chinese-owned Smithfield to contract with farmers to raise pigs in large, concentrated operations. That helps the packers control product consistency, minimize costs and squeeze out more profit.

Schilz, a third-generation rancher, said his family lost a $1.5 million cattle-feeding contract "basically within the blink of an eye" when the 1998 law passed. A Colorado feedlot built specifically because of the law took 4,000 head from his operation, along with cows from 10 other Nebraska yards, he said.

"There is not one other person in this body that has experienced this law like I have," he said.

"I’m glad it passed," he said of the repeal. "It’s the right thing to have happen."

Groups opposed to the bill had waged a publicity war in the weeks leading up to Friday’s vote. Hansen said an overwhelming majority of those who wrote letters, sent emails and called lawmakers about the bill asked them to oppose it.

The Center for Rural Affairs accused lawmakers of choosing meatpackers over family farmers and ranchers. Bold Nebraska, which gathered 1,100 petition signatures against the bill, began a tweet with "SHAME" after the vote.

But senators bristled at the suggestion that campaign contributions, especially from Smithfield, had affected their votes.

"Don’t demonize someone who is on a different side," said Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who supported the bill.

How they voted

Lawmakers passed a bill Friday (LB176) to repeal Nebraska’s ban on meatpacker ownership of swine.

Voting yes (34): Baker, Campbell, Coash, Craighead, Ebke, Fox, Friesen, Garrett, Gloor, Hadley, B. Harr, Hilkemann, Hughes, Johnson, Kintner, Kolowski, Kolterman, Krist, Kuehn, Larson, Lindstrom, McCollister, Mello, Murante, Pansing Brooks, Riepe, Scheer, Schilz, Schumacher, Seiler, Smith, Stinner, Watermeier, Williams.

Voting no (14): Bloomfield, Bolz, Brasch, Chambers, Cook, Crawford, Davis, Groene, K. Haar, Hansen, Howard, Morfeld, Schnoor, Sullivan.

Excused (1): McCoy