Spirit Lake, Iowa--
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says he is willing to do anything he can to break up the vertical integration of the pork industry.
Glickman wants to see how his lawsuit against meatpacker IBP over alleged anti-competitive beef marketing agreements turns out. If successful, Glickman said he would be willing to use similar actions in pork and poultry.
"It's an important issue to me. I am interested in anti-trust efforts," Glickman said of his action against corporate hog production, in an interview with The Progressive Populist. "I want you to know that I have talked with (Attorney General) Janet Reno about this, and (Senator) Tom Harkin talks to me and Reno about this all the time."
"I also want you to know that the President is interested in this. This is not just a hog-chicken-beef issue. We need to define what our public view is of economic concentration in all areas."
Glickman dismissed the suggestion that special interests--such as Tyson Foods, which curried favor with former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy--could have bought him off.
"That is absolutely not true. Nobody owns me," said Glickman, a former congressman from Wichita, Kansas. "With me around you have somebody who at least worries about production, who worries about if a farmer has choices about if he can sell his product. I want you to know, very clearly, that I care very much about this issue."
Glickman added that the USDA recently told Arkansas poultry producers to stop using "fresh" labels on frozen products. "That did not endear them to me," he said.
The USDA also has commissioned a study by seven land-grant universities looking into packer concentration in all categories of mean. That study will see what, if any, effect concentration and ownership from farrow-to-slaughter has on the market. Glickman said he will use the study to determine what his policy choices will be.
The study could help spur the Justice Department to act on anti-trust enforcement, he said.
Further, Glickman said his lawsuit against IBP, using the Packers and Stockyards Act, could provide an opening to attack vertical integration.
"At least it may have a rehabilitative effect," Glickman said. "It might make these guys stop and think. I don't know. We need to find out what the law is. For years, no one did anything about this."
IBP argues that marketing agreements are not exclusive and have been in use for 20 years. IBP has been careful to stress that it will pay premiums for quality pork that is graded, but that it will not exclude independent producers from doing business. IBP says it depends on independent producers to keep larger, corporate suppliers in check.
Glickman charges that there are a "few favored customers" among the large beef packers, most concentrated in Garden City, Kansas. "If you're not one of the favored few, you can't sell. It's as simple as that."
Glickman said he has met with IBP Chairman Bob Peterson. He also said IBP is "not the worst," although he declined to supply other names.
The continuing economic concentration in agriculture--where four meatpackers control 85 percent of the beef slaughter--is a "dangerous trend," Glickman said.
"It began 25 years ago in agriculture," he said. "There has been a demographic revolution in rural America since the end of World War II really. I'm not going to prejudge it all. Some of this may be the way of the world, and there's nothing I can do about it. I do believe it is important enough for us to take a very serious look at--captive shifting, forward contracting, all that. We have to ask: What is the state of agriculture?
"We in our department must be advocates for the family farm system. That is my charge from the President. I want to do the right thing, the sensible thing. And I want you to know that someone cares, that the President himself cares about this. We cannot deliver miracles. We can promise to do our best."
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST