Antitrust workshop to include producers but not packers

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture


Capital Press

A wide array of cattle and hog producers will join other experts at the U.S. government's antitrust hearing on the livestock industry on Friday, Aug. 27 in Fort Collins, Colo.

But absent from the list of panel participants is anyone from the so-called "big four" meat packing companies, against which much industry scrutiny has been focused.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder will headline the all-day workshop, which will be held in a student center ballroom at Colorado State University.

The meeting - the fourth such workshop dealing with competition in agriculture - will also feature Christine Varney, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's antitrust division.

Speakers and panelists will include federal and state officials, ranchers, sheep and hog producers, a feedlot owner, a farmers' market co-founder, a lender, several attorneys, an auction yard owner and a representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

But no panelist is affiliated directly with Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill or National Beef, which together slaughter about 80 percent of U.S. beef and which have been accused of depressing prices paid to producers.

Asked about their absence, USDA Press Secretary Caleb Weaver responded that one of the more than 30 scheduled speakers will be Mark Dopp, an attorney for the American Meat Institute, a trade organization that represents processors. A small packer will be included as well, he said.

"We sought participation by all segments of the livestock industry, and we appreciate the participation that we're getting," he said.

Weaver said he did not know whether anyone had declined an invitation to participate.

One USDA official, speaking only on background, said two of the four had been invited but had declined. He could not identify the companies.

The workshop's agenda was kept under tight wraps until late Friday, Aug. 20, when it was posted online.

After opening remarks, separate panels will examine producer and feeder issues, trends in the livestock industry and market structure. Three hours of public testimony are also scheduled.

Some have criticized the previous USDA-Justice Department antitrust workshops for being weighted toward opponents of large-scale production agriculture.

For instance, of the 14 people on two government-selected panels at a poultry industry workshop in Normal, Ala., this spring, only four spoke in favor of the industry as it is currently structured, according to Richard Lobb, a National Chicken Council spokesman.

Opinions or explanations from the four largest meatpackers would be significant, as the federal government is believed to be investigating whether they're illegally or unfairly driving down cattle prices.

Moreover, a federal agency has proposed sweeping restrictions on the marketing of livestock and poultry, including barring packers from acquiring livestock from other packers and setting up an arbitration process to handle disputes between packers and producers.

The Fort Collins workshop has been much anticipated, with one group - the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America - pledging to bring as many as 25,000 rural Americans to the meeting. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has encouraged its members to attend, too.

However, rooms for Thursday and Friday nights were still available in several Fort Collins hotel and motels Monday afternoon.

No streaming webcast will be available, but transcripts and video will be posted later on the antitrust division's website, according to a government press release.

Workshop agenda

Here is the full agenda for the USDA/Department of Justice antitrust hearing on Friday, Aug. 27 in Fort Collins, Colo. (all times Mountain Daylight Time):

8:30 a.m - 8:45 a.m.: Opening Remarks

Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

8:45 a.m. - 9:45 a.m.: Keynote Roundtable Discussion

Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice

Betsy Markey, Congresswoman, U.S. House of Representatives

Bill Ritter Jr., Governor, state of Colorado

John Suthers, Attorney General, state of Colorado

Steve Bullock, Attorney General, state of Montana

John Stulp, Commissioner of Agriculture, state of Colorado

9:45 a.m. - 10:15 a.m.: Coffee Break

10:15 a.m. - 11:45 a.m.: Producer/Feeder Presentation of Issues

This panel will be an opportunity to hear first-hand from producers or feeders as they share their experiences and perspectives on the industry.

Moderators: Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice

Mike Harper, sheep producer, Eaton, Colo.

Dr. Taylor Haynes, rancher, Cheyenne, Wyo.

Robbie LeValley, rancher, Hotchkiss, Colo.

Harry Livermont, rancher, Interior, S.D.

Chris Petersen, hog farmer, Clear Lake, Iowa

Allen Sents, feedlot owner, Marquette, Kan.

Alden Zuhlke, rancher, Brunswick, Neb.

11:45 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: Lunch

12:30 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.: Public Testimony

1:30 p.m. - 2:45 p.m.: Panel I - Trends in the Livestock Industry

This panel will discuss trends in the livestock industry, including issues associated with contracting, price transparency and the effects of concentration.

Moderator: Philip Weiser, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice

Jerry Bohn, general manager, Pratt Feeders, Pratt, Kan.

Libby Cook, co-founder, Wild Oats Markets and Sunflower Farmers Markets

Mark Greenwood, vice president, commercial lending, AgStar Financial Services

Bill Heffernan, professor emeritus of rural sociology, University of Missouri

Mark Lauritsen, international vice president, director food processing, packing and manufacturing division, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

Gilles Stockton, rancher, Range, Mont.

Armando Valdez, rancher, La Jara, Colo.

Clem Ward, professor and extension economist, Oklahoma State University

2:45 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.: Panel II - Market Structure

This panel will include a variety of market participants who will discuss market structure issues in the livestock industry.

Moderator: James MacDonald, Chief, Agricultural Structure and Productivity Branch, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Bruce Cobb, general manager, Consolidated Beef Producers

David Domina, attorney, Domina Law Group

Mark Dopp, attorney, American Meat Institute

James Herring, president and chief executive officer, Friona Industries

Robert Mack, cattle producer/feeder, Watertown, S.D.

Bob Miller, rancher, Okmulgee, Okla.

William Rishel, Richel Angus, Platt, Neb.

Charlie Rogers, owner/general manager, Clovis Livestock Auction

4:00 p.m. - 4:15 p.m.: Break

4:15 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Public Testimony

6:30 p.m.: Concluding Remarks

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