Person on horseback in a rural setting looking at a herd of cattle in the distance

The little guy could get a bigger voice in proposed USDA fairness rule

© iStock - WestwindPhoto
Mike Moen

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(Prairie News Service) From North Dakota to Texas, the beef raised on farms goes through a production process controlled by four major companies and independent ranchers hope a proposed federal rule gives them more power to act if they feel they have been ripped off.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the plan it unveiled last week would provide clarity regarding unfair market practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act.

PROMO Government - USDA United States Department of Agriculture Building Washington DC - iStock - Melissa Kopka

© iStock - Melissa Kopka

Aaron Shier, government relations director for the National Farmers Union, said in the past, some courts have said there needs to be proof the broader market is harmed. He noted the update addresses the problem within the long-standing law.

"It has many producer protection elements," Shier explained. "Over the long history of this law, that has gotten confused and muddled. And so, this proposed rule is meant to set the record straight on that issue."

Supporters said not only does it help prevent smaller farmers from going out of business but potentially gives consumers a fair shake on the prices they pay for meat and poultry. Industry groups like the Meat Institute are criticizing the move, saying it would set meat production back decades by encouraging litigation while actually hurting consumers.

The Institute also questioned such efforts when cattle prices are at record levels. Shier suggested there are specific examples of questionable tactics beyond current market dynamics.

"Failure to pay," Shier emphasized. "If a meatpacker, someone in the market fails to pay a producer, that is something USDA has consistently taken action on."

With more clarity under the law, policy analysts said there might be more consistency regarding court decisions when individual farmers push back against an industry giant. Shier pointed out the ultimate goal is to avoid lawsuits with this action and similar steps recently taken by the USDA setting a tone to foster market competition. A public comment period is the next step ahead of the rule becoming final.