USDA rules would aim to protect livestock, poultry producers

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va. With a little more than a month left in the Obama administration, the Agriculture Department on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, announced new rules aimed at protecting the rights of livestock and poultry producers who do business with larger companies. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With a little more than a month left in the Obama administration, the Agriculture Department on Wednesday announced new rules aimed at protecting the rights of livestock and poultry producers who do business with larger companies.

A years-long fight over the regulations has pitted small farmers and ranchers against some of the nation’s biggest meat companies. The administration first proposed similar rules in 2010, but Congress blocked funds for them. Congress lifted that ban in a spending bill last year.

USDA announced three rules Wednesday. A rule effective immediately would make it easier for farmers to sue the companies they contract with over unfair practices. Two proposed rules would aim to protect the legal rights of growers and help poultry producers who say they are being unfairly targeted.

“All too often, processors and packers wield the power, and farmers carry the risk,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Today, USDA is taking a big step toward providing the protections that farmers deserve and need.”

USDA says the four largest poultry processors control more than half of the market, giving chicken or turkey producers limited options for local processors to contract with. The department says that means processors can suppress how much the producers are paid or pit them against each other, among other unfair practices.

The rule that is effective immediately, called an interim final rule, would clarify that a farmer doesn’t have to prove that an unfair practice is damaging to the entire industry to sue. The two proposed rules would lay out certain criteria that USDA views as clear violations of the law.

The poultry and livestock industries immediately criticized the new rules, saying they would raise meat prices for consumers, cost jobs in rural America and prompt frivolous lawsuits.

“The vast majority of chicken farmers in rural America are happy and prosper raising chickens in partnership with companies, and they don’t want the government meddling on their farms and telling them how they should run their businesses,” said National Chicken Council President Mike Brown.

In a release, the National Pork Producers Council called the rules “an apparent attack on rural America for its role in helping elect Donald Trump as president.”

Vilsack called that statement “absurd” in a call with reporters shortly afterward.

“This has nothing to do with the election of 2016, it has everything to do with what is fair to producers,” Vilsack said.

Mike Weaver, the president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, supports the new rules. He said American family farmers “came out of the woodwork” to support Trump and said these regulations are designed to protect them.

“We helped put him in office, we need some consideration,” Weaver said.

It’s unclear whether the incoming Trump administration would side with the larger businesses or the smaller-scale growers when the 60-day comment period on the proposed rules ends. Trump hasn’t commented on the issue, though he has promised to get rid of many of the Obama administration’s regulations, calling them burdensome.