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Investigation into potential beef market manipulation sought

Getty Images/Spencer Platt Beef case at a grocery store
More than 145 bipartisan lawmakers also seek swift relief for cattle producers in COVID-19 market fallout.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate potential market manipulation and other illegal activity by large meat packing companies in the cattle industry.

In a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Grassley cited repeated, numerous and significant concerns raised by farmers and ranchers about possible illegal practices due to consolidation of the meat packing industry. The senator is seeking investigations from both departments into these serious allegations.

Since Feb. 4, 2020, live cattle prices are down 16%. This is happening even while American consumers bought 77% more meat during the week of March 15 compared to the same week of 2019, Grassley said in his letter. Further, the four largest meat packing companies control approximately 80% of beef processing in the U.S.

“With the shelf price of meat at record highs and with the high rate of concentration in the meat packing industry, there are concerns that the difference in these margins is the result of illegal practices,” Grassley wrote.

“I request that you examine the current structure of the beef meat packing industry and investigate potential market and price manipulation, collusion, restrictions on competition and/or other unfair and deceptive practices under the United States antitrust laws and the Packers & Stockyards Act,” Grassley continued.

Meanwhile, a congressional letter was sent to Perdue April 1 urging swift relief for American cattle producers who have been adversely affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of more than 145 lawmakers from both chambers of Congress.

The letter noted, “While we do not know what the full market impact will be for the various commodities produced in our states, we recognize that there is an immediate need for assistance for our cattle producers.”

The letter sought “targeted, temporary, equitable relief to cattle producers in a manner that limits market distortions and negative effects on price discovery.”

The letter was led by Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.) and Reps. Henry Cuellar (D., Cal.) and Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.). Other notable signers include Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee chairman John Hoeven (R., N.D.), Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee ranking member Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) and ranking member Mike Conaway (R., Texas), House Agriculture Appropriations Committee chairman Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.), and House Agriculture Appropriations Committee ranking member Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.).

“America’s cattle producers have been hit hard by the unforeseen financial challenges brought on by this pandemic. We thank each and every lawmaker that showed their continued support to rural families by signing onto this critical letter,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) president Marty Smith, a family cow/calf operator from Wacahoota, Fla. “We remain hopeful that USDA can quickly deliver this relief to the cattle producers that so desperately need it.”

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