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Meat industry increases political spending, lobbying as USDA updates crucial regulations

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Meat industry increases political spending, lobbying as USDA updates crucial regulations

Jun 06, 2024 | 7:04 am ET
By John McCracken
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Meat industry increases political spending, lobbying as USDA updates crucial regulations
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USDA Supervisory Agricultural Meat Graders at the annual national beef correlation event, Aug. 13, 2019. In 2019, the top four beef packers — Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill Beef and National Beef — processed around three quarters of the nation’s beef in 27 facilities across the nation (Preston Keres/USDA).

Meat industry groups and major meat companies spent more than $10 million on political contributions and lobbying efforts in 2023. For some, last year’s spending was an all-time high.

The federal government has been rolling out changes to the protections given to livestock and poultry producers, as well as how these farmers operate. In turn, these changes prompted various meat companies and industry groups to lobby against certain provisions. In some cases, industry groups backed lawmakers seeking to do away with the new rulings altogether.

The now-finalized updates to the Packers and Stockyard Act include addressing discrimination of livestock and poultry growers based on race, sex, age, or disability from the companies that purchase their animals or pen the contracts by which producers abide. Another update, known as “Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments,” requires sharing information between large chicken companies and the independent, contract farmers that raise chickens for consumption.

The changes are a step in the right direction to protect producers over businesses, said Mike Stranz, National Farmers Union vice president of advocacy. The National Farmers Union, according to its website, “helps the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices” and represents 200,000 farmers and ranchers across the country.

“Decades of consolidation and unchecked vertical integration have created a livestock market that tips the scales away from family farmers and ranchers and puts much of the power in the hands of just a few multinational corporations,” Stranz said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest. “USDA is rebalancing the scale and providing fairness for farmers and ranchers.”

R.J. Layher, the director of government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement provided to Investigate Midwest that the prominent agricultural group also supports the changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act. The Farm Bureau is an agricultural advocacy and lobbying organization with more than 2 million members across the country.

“We believe that the changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act will bring needed transparency for contract poultry growers as well as clarifying what constitutes retaliation and deception,” Layher said.

President Joe Biden has made consolidation and anti-monopoly efforts a core tenant of his administration, with the meat industry a primary target. Changes to the 103-year-old Packers and Stockyard Act continue to spark lobbying efforts and political donations to influential federal lawmakers in agriculture and livestock focused states.

Austin Frerick, an agriculture policy expert and author of the book, “Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry,” said the rise in spending points to meat organizations’ and companies’ concerns over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s changes.

“These slaughterhouses are throwing record amounts of money at politicians right now because they see farmers and voters clamoring for change and they want to stop it,” he said.

Companies and lobbying organizations said their increase in lobbying was directly related to legislation like the Farm Bill as well as addressing specific concerns for individual industries.

Investigate Midwest analyzed two decades of political campaign contributions and lobbying dollars from meat industry groups National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and major meat companies JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and Cargill.

The National Pork Producers Council, Tyson Foods and Cargill spent the most on lobbying federal lawmakers and agencies last year. The annual revenue reported by industry groups is based on 2022, the most recent public tax filing year.

The National Pork Producers Council:

  • is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, and has local associations in 39 states
  • reported nearly $20 million in annual revenue in 2022
  • spent $2.8 million lobbying last year — the largest spend and year-over-year increase seen in any meat group analyzed
  • increased its lobbying spending three-fold since 2003
  • has executive members from pork companies Clemens Foods and Smithfield Foods

Tyson Foods: 

  • is the nation’s largest poultry company and is headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas
  • reported nearly $53 billion in annual revenues last year
  • spent $2 million lobbying federal lawmakers and agencies in 2023
  • has doubled its annual lobbying spending in the past two decades
  • shuttered eight meatpacking plants in last year, leaving growers with large amounts of debt and few options to pay it of

Cargill Inc:

  • is the nation’s largest private company and is headquartered in Wayzata, Minnesota
  • reported $177 billion in annual revenues last year
  • spent $1.3 million lobbying federal lawmakers and agencies in 2023
  • has increased its lobbying spending 106% in the past two decades

In a statement provided to Investigate Midwest, Cargill said the company’s lobbying aligns with business priorities across all of its food and agriculture sectors, not just meat. The company said that it did increase its spending from 2022 to 2023 to focus on major problems facing the sector.

“Looking specifically at the meat industry, our efforts in 2023 focused on critical issues facing the entire industry, not just Cargill, including the Farm Bill, climate, supply chain resiliency and transportation,” the statement said.

The National Pork Producers Council and Tyson Foods did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Regarding political donations, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Turkey Federation and the National Pork Producers Council spent the most last year. The National Pork Producers Council donated nearly $293,000 in donations to federal lawmakers in 2023. (Companies cannot donate directly to politicians. All donations come through political action committees organized by top company officials and employees.)

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association:

  • is headquartered in Denver Colorado and has offices in Washington, D.C.
  • reported $55 million in annual revenue in 2022
  • nearly tripled its political donations in the last two decades and spent $609,000 in 2023
  • said the USDA’s new Inclusive Competition ruling “fails to give adequate consideration to the severe costs that increased litigation and litigation risk will impose on the beef industry”

The National Turkey Federation:

  • is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
  • Reported a much smaller annual revenue than its peers at $3 million in 2022
  • spent an organizational record $308,500 in political donations in 2023
  • tripled its political spending in the past two decades
  • has leadership from poultry companies Butterball, Tyson, Jennie-O Turkey, and Cargill
  • urged the USDA to not include turkey growers in its final “Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments” rule, even though the turkey and chicken industries use similar payment systems

“Turkey farmers and others who work in the industry are actively engaged in (the National Turkey Federation)’s legislative efforts, and support for the PAC has increased as a result,” National Turkey Federation communications manager Laycee Gibson told Investigate Midwest in an email. “With increased contributions over the years, the PAC has been able to allocate more funds to address the needs and issues of the industry.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While these industry groups and companies represent individual meat producers and products, they often work in tandem on major issues facing the entire industry. For example, the Pork Producers Council has advocated on behalf of the poultry industry when the USDA introduced changes to how poultry companies pay contract growers.

Sarah Bryner, OpenSecrets’ director of research and strategy, said increased spending on lobbying often correlates with specific legislation, such as the Farm Bill or updates to the Packers and Stockyard Act.

“If they’re spending more, they’re probably hiring more, or more expensive, lobbying firms to represent them,” Bryner said.

Which lawmakers benefited from industry money?

Meat industry increases political spending, lobbying as USDA updates crucial regulations
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (photo submitted).

Federal lawmakers in major agricultural states have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in industry campaign donations over the past 20 years. And industry support transcends partisan lines.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Democratic Congressman from California, received nearly $400,000 from all of the meat industry groups and corporations analyzed from 2004 to 2023. Costa — a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Subcommittee — topped the list for these three organizations. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

And of all the meat industry groups and corporations analyzed, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Turkey Federation and the National Pork Producers Council have had the largest increase in political spending over the past two decades, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of Federal Election Commission data.

In Midwestern states, the top five recipients of industry money in the past 20 years are:

  • Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and the longest-serving member of the House Committee on Agriculture ($265,495)
  • Rep. Adrian Smith, a Republican Congressman from Nebraska ($237,864)
  • Rep. Collin Peterson, a former Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, who lost re-election in 2020 and recently began lobbying on agriculture issues ($232,545)
  • Rep. Sam Graves, a Republican Congressman and Senator from Missouri ($177,399)
  • Roy Blunt, a former Republican Congressman from Missouri, who retired in 2023 ($166,866)

In the past 20 years, Smith received more than $80,000 from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Lucas received nearly $67,000.

Smith also received $60,000 from the National Pork Producers Council over the two-decade period, the second-highest in that time. The pork organization also donated large sums to representatives in major pork states such as North Carolina and Iowa.

In late 2023, when the USDA introduced its final language for the Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments ruling, numerous members of Congress wrote a letter to the agency, asking for an extension of the public comment period as well as scrutinizing the agency’s plans to update the ruling. Congressmen Lucas, Smith, Graves, and Costa signed onto the letter.

Representatives Lucas, Smith and Graves did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Former Minnesota Rep. Peterson received the second-highest amount of money from the National Turkey Federation. Other major contributions from the Turkey Federation include $53,000 to Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican Congressman from Arkansas and co-chair of the U.S. Congressional Chicken Caucus.

Peterson said he received his donations from industry groups because he was the chair of the House’s Agriculture Committee. He also told Investigate Midwest he received donations from meatpackers and poultry groups because of his work in his home state during the 2015 avian flu pandemic, as well as efforts to reopen meatpacking plants during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My door was always open whether they had given me any money or not,” he said.

Death of a rider

In 2024, Congress is up against finalizing a long-overdue Farm Bill, a presidential election year and its annual allocation of federal dollars to agency budgets.

While federal lawmakers were trying to finalize budgets for agencies from the USDA to the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year, an effort to quash all updates to the Packers and Stockyard Act was circulating in the nation’s capital.

A subcommittee of Congress members is responsible for proposing the USDA’s budget. The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee is a majority-Republican group of 15 people, from Iowa to California.

In May 2023, Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and subcommittee chairperson, introduced an appropriations bill that included language meant to nix all enforcement of the USDA’s new poultry transparency ruling.

The bill failed, but as final negotiations began on Capitol Hill in late February, the language was resurrected as a potential policy rider — an amendment to legislation often added to larger bill packages to pass controversial items — into the USDA appropriations bill.

A section of the failed bill from 2023 said none of the funds made available by the bill could be used to “implement or enforce” three separate issues being addressed by the USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division:

  • The now-finalized Transparency in Poultry Grower Contracting and Tournaments rule
  • Future USDA rulemaking to tackle problems in the poultry industry’s tournament system
  • Proposed Packers and Stockyards Act revisions that would encourage competition in the meatpacking industry and penalize anti-competitive behavior

Harris received more than $24,000 from meat industry organizations in 2023, a career-high for the congressman. (Harris added a policy rider with similar language during the annual budgeting sessions for the USDA in 2016.) His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As the federal government inched closer to a March 1 deadline this year to finalize the appropriations bill, agriculture reform advocates and elected officials began to sound the alarm that this language made its way back into budget negotiations, said Jordan Treakle, the policy coordinator for the National Family Farm Coalition, an advocacy organization that works with farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

“We are strongly opposed to this recurring policy rider and don’t feel that it reflects the interests and needs of the family farmers and poultry growers that we represent, and feed our communities everyday,” Treakle said.

Senators Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, also published a joint letter to their fellow senators on Feb. 20, urging them to reject any policy riders that would prevent the USDA from enforcing regulations that prevent meatpacking companies from continuing to fix prices and make record profits.

“They want to abuse their market power to pay producers less and charge consumers more,” the senators wrote.

The policy rider was not included in the USDA’s final budget this year.

Attempts to delay or dismantle new USDA rulings meant to provide fairness and transparency in the meat industry are not new.

In December 2023, members of the Congressional and Senate Chicken Caucuses wrote the USDA to request that the agency delay implementing the poultry transparency rule, stating that the agency’s impending rule “dramatically underestimated” the necessary time and people needed to update current contracts between farmers and meatpacking companies.

The National Chicken Council also sent a similar letter to USDA in December.

In response to the request to delay the final rule implementation, USDA spokesperson Allan Rodriguez told Investigate Midwest that poultry growers have long waited for basic transparency needed to avoid deception from major corporations. He said the agency made the proposal rule available to the public for more than a year, and the final language was available for 100 days between its announcement and implementation.

Reform of meat industry regulation has been nearly 20 years in the making.

The 2008 Farm Bill included language tasking the USDA to revitalize its enforcement carried out by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration — or GIPSA —, which enforces the Packers and Stockyards Act and is responsible for enforcing rules and regulations in meat and grain markets.

In 2010, the USDA proposed regulations that would increase contract transparency for poultry and swine farmers, a decision commonly referred to as the “GIPSA rule.” Before the regulations were finalized, Congress prohibited USDA from implementing its final recommendations. This lasted until 2015, with policy riders that suppressed the release of the final rule.

GIPSA was allowed to draft and propose a finalized rule in the 2016 appropriations process. When then-President Donald Trump took office, his administration threw out all new GIPSA rules changes.

Now, despite the Biden administration’s work to tackle consolidation and power in the meat industry, farmers and agricultural reform advocates have become increasingly frustrated with the pace of new regulations from the USDA and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Frerick, author of “Barons,” is among those frustrated.

“The meat industry is the closest we have to a criminal organization in modern day American business and the USDA just seems incompetent to deal with them,” Frerick said. “It’s allowing them to keep engaging in these incredibly abusive practices to both our workers and farmers.”

He said there was a heavy sense of deja vu this year when it came to fights over policy riders and meat industry monopolies influencing legislation.

“The meat industry has so much money and power,” Frerick said. “It’s going to win in the darkness.”

This article first appeared on Investigate Midwest and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.