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USDA building in Washington, D.C.

Three U.S. senators have introduced legislation to beef up enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., addresses anticompetitive practices in the meat and poultry industries that threaten the nation’s food supply and national security following the recent ransomware attack on JBS, the country’s largest meat supplier.

The Meat Packing Special Investigator Act would create a new dedicated office within the Department of Agriculture’s Packers and Stockyards Division.

The Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters would have a team of investigators, with subpoena power, dedicated to preventing and addressing anticompetitive practices and enforcing antitrust laws.

The new special investigator and team would coordinate and act in consultation with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission and create a new bridge between USDA and the Department of Homeland Security.

“With a team of dedicated staff, the USDA will now have the ability to investigate the tough issues facing producers and hold bad actors accountable,” according to a press release from the senators.

“This bill provides USDA with the necessary tools to beef up enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, increase coordination with DOJ, FTC, and DHS and to foster a fair and functional marketplace for farmers and consumers alike,” Grassley said.

Unfair, anticompetitive practices in the meatpacking industry have hurt ranchers for years and put rural communities and family agriculture at risk, Tester said.

In addition, corporate consolidation is a direct threat to national security because a single cyber attack can threaten the food supply, he said.

“That’s why this bill is so important. It devotes the needed tools to USDA to shore up our national security and address anticompetitive practices in the industry that threaten Montana ranchers and consumers,” he said.

It’s long past time to address packer concentration, Rounds said.

Cattle producers are going broke while consumers are paying an over-inflated premium for beef at the grocery store, Rounds said.

“Our legislation strengthens USDA’s ability to investigate harmful anticompetitive behavior to apply the Packers and Stockyards Act as intended,” he said.

U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has long advocated the creation of a special investigator position, said Leo McDonnell, the association’s director emeritus.

“This bill comes at a critical time for the U.S. cattle industry. To ensure a level playing field for U.S. cattle producers, we need a referee that can call foul on anticompetitive market practices,” he said.

The bill directs coordination between the agencies and grants subpoena power to aid in the investigation and prosecution of violators, he said.

It also “bolsters the legal power of the USDA by maintaining a staff of attorneys and other professionals with relevant expertise that can elevate cases of corruption,” he said.

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