Rudy Howell, a North Carolina chicken grower under contract with Perdue, says that GIPSA would have helped him make the case when Perdue didn’t uphold its end of the bargain. In the 24 years he’s been growing chickens, Howell says, the company has charged him for feed it did not in fact deliver, or miscounted the number of birds it shipped to him, or asked for expensive upgrades to the farm he felt weren’t necessary. Complaints like these are common, though poultry integrators frequently deny them—a conundrum we wrote about earlier this year, featuring a couple’s ongoing legal battle against their contractor, Tyson Foods.
Howell says he has heard the same excuses.
“When you say something to them about it, they say, ‘well we ain’t go no reason to screw over you,” he says. “And I’ll say, ‘I understand that. But your paperwork ain’t right.’” But because he’d have to prove competitive injury, Howell has no easy way to make his case that that Perdue has sometimes given him an unfair shake on birds and feed.
Gary Staples, a Koch grower from Alabama, says he has no recourse when his contractor sends him unhealthy birds who can’t grow at a competitive rate.
“We don’t have any control over what kind of chickens, what kind of feed,” Staples says. “I know they can send you a good batch of chickens or a bad batch of chickens, and that’s their business. They should be able to. But what I’m saying is, if they know they’re sending this grower a bad batch of chickens, they ought to compensate that grower.”
“It looked like they were really going to do something about that, and then came 2010, the Tea Party moment, and the attack on Obama for being hostile to business.”
For its part, the meat industry seems largely thrilled to have bought itself a little breathing room in the race to meet what it says it’s being squeezed by: consumer demand. The industry trade group North American Meat Institute (NIMA) on Tuesday said in a press release titled, “Meat Institute Welcomes USDA Rescission of GIPSA Rule,” that the rule would have “greatly limited marketing agreements that allow the industry to meet consumer demand for various animal handling and production requirements, such as organic, grass fed, raised without antibiotics and others, limiting the availability of these products for consumers.”
There’s a story you’ll undoubtedly read elsewhere that fits pretty neatly around news of this fresh rollback: President Trump campaigned by appealing to rural voters, then double-crossed them by favoring industry big-wigs. And in some ways, that’s exactly what happened. But in reality, Washington hasn’t had much success in addressing consolidation in the meat industry in recent years—regardless of who was in charge. A Clinton presidency may have seen a similar outcome.
Farmers and ranchers in rural communities stood up with Obama’s administration and elected him president,” Maxwell says. “And he did put in place at DOJ and USDA the five workshops”—these were workshops in 2010 that addressed competition issues in the poultry, dairy, and livestock industries—“and gave a large amount of hope to the people … he quickly retreated when Big Ag came in and said these rules were too much, and they were delayed for five years.”
It was Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that put the watered-down GIPSA rules in place in December of 2016. Vilsack now works for the dairy industry as the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
When writer Corby Kummer asked Michael Pollan about the meat industry for this magazine last year, Pollan was a little more generous with the Obama administration. “The most disheartening episode had to do with antitrust in agriculture,” he said. “Vilsack and Eric Holder did listening tours all over the Midwest, looking at meatpacking and how that was damaging ranchers and chicken farmers, and also concentration in the seed business. It looked like they were really going to do something about that, and then came 2010, the Tea Party moment, and the attack on Obama for being hostile to business.”
Pollan also pointed out that a Clinton administration may well have taken a pro-business approach to ag policy. “It’s important to remember that the Clintons’ first political patrons were Tyson Foods and Walmart. So their DNA on the food issue leaves a lot to be desired.”
One last thought: the rules themselves may prove totally irrelevant: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s plans for reorganizing USDA nests GIPSA under the Agriculture Marketing Service, a move advocacy groups argue will weaken the agency even further. “Two steps forward, one step back” only works if you’re doing the funky chicken.