Friday, January 20, 2006

Stockyards and Packers law not enforced

USDA's Inspector General reported this week (.pdf) that the federal agency responsible for ensuring fair competition in the meat packing industry is failing to enforce federal law. The agency, which is supposed to investigate anti-competitive practices, could not effectively define and track its investigations, plan complex investigations, or make agency policy.

As a result, the Inspector General said, the agency's tracking system "could not be relied upon, competition and complex investigations were not being performed, and timely action was not being taken on issues that impact day-to-day activities."

Investigative reports have been pointing out similar shortcomings for many years. A 2000 report (.pdf) from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides some helpful background on the role of the Grain Inspection Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).
Under the Packers and Stockyards Act, GIPSA is responsible for providing financial protection for participants in livestock transactions and halting unfair and anticompetitive practices. GIPSA addresses its financial and trade practice responsibilities by regulating livestock buyers’ business practices to ensure, among other things, that sellers are paid promptly for their animals and that the animals are weighed accurately. GIPSA addresses concerns about competition by investigating complaints and concerns about anticompetitive activities4 and by analyzing data on the structure and operations of the livestock, poultry, and meatpacking industries. Overall, these functions of GIPSA are referred to as its Packers and Stockyards Programs.
This week's new report from USDA's Inspector General paints a devastating portrait of agency management unable or unwilling to make key decisions, which were essential for agency staff to work effectively.

In response, some in Congress called for reforms. According to Brownfield agricultural news site:
“I had no idea it was as bad as it is,” said [Senator Tom] Harkin Thursday. Further, according to Harkin, the report alleges that top GIPSA officials have actively blocked efforts to enforce it.

Harkin told reporters Thursday that the Senate Agriculture Committee should take additional action. “I really think this requires further investigation,” Harkin said, referring to the agency, “and quite frankly, I think the Agriculture Committee ought to meet, we ought to subpoena some of these people, put them under oath and find out just what is going on down there.”

Harkin says the Senate Ag Committee should compel current and former high-ranking GIPSA officials to testify, although he concedes he can't make that happen on his own.

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