Havre Daily News: Tester talks meat packing in press call

by Patrick Johnston

Montana Sen. Jon Tester held a rural press call Thursday primarily about his and his colleagues’ recent efforts to curtail anticompetitive practices and consolidation in the meat packing industry.

“Capitalism has helped to make America the greatest nation the world has ever seen – but capitalism only works if we have competition – and right now a lack of competition, specifically in our beef markets, is making it harder and harder for our family farms and ranches to succeed,” Tester said.

He said the state of the market, influenced in large part by an increasingly monopolistic meat packing industry, is making it harder and harder for family farmers and ranchers to hand down their operations to the next generation.

He said, with four companies controlling more than 80 percent of the packing industry producers, consumers are being hurt as the industry draws in massive revenue.

“Now, I’m all for folks making a profit. But with packers making this kind of profit, you’d think that Montana’s ranchers would be getting their slice of the pie, but that’s not the case,” Tester said.

He said two big bills he’s working on to address these issues are the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act which will set regional mandatory minimum threshholds for negotiated cattle purchases by large packers and increase price discoverability in the market to recognize price manipulation by “the big four.”

The other bill Tester discussed was the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, which would create a team of investigators within the U.S. Department of Agriculture dedicated to preventing and addressing anticompetitive practices in the meat and poultry industries and enforcing antitrust laws.

The team would have subpoena power and put teeth back into the Packers and Stockyards Act, he said.

He said these bills are being worked on across the political aisle and seem to be getting bipartisan support already, and he hopes the bills get passed as soon as possible.

“Montana’s ranchers and consumers simply can’t wait any longer,” he said.

“What’s going on in rural America right now doesn’t work for rural America and it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” Tester added. “You’ve just got to look at these communities.”

He said the bills will hopefully come out of committee during the current work period, which wraps up at the end of this month, and that they hopefully will be on the Senate floor by June.

Tester said he feels good about the support the bills have so far, but they still have work to do to make sure they pass.

He said he understands the perspective of the meat packers who will fight these bills, but things cannot keep going as they are, and Tester stressed that he’s not looking to go after small operations, but focus on the large companies engaging in detrimental practices, and, even then, not to put them out of business.

“I’m not asking anyone to do these things at a loss, profit is important, but doggone it the prices have to be fair,” he said.

He said he knows the big packers are going to fight these bills and act as if it’s going to kill their businesses, but the numbers don’t back that up.

“The big guys have had it their way for a hundred years,” Tester said, “And they’re gonna come in saying, ‘No, no, no the worlds’s going to come to an end if you pass this stuff,’ when in reality they’re making hundreds if not thousands of dollars per head.”

After discussing these bills Tester took questions on a few other subjects including the state’s drug crisis.

He said drugs are coming in to the U.S. through the southern border, but generally they are smuggled in with vehicles through the country’s ports, not by random people crossing the boarder on foot.

He said he’s recently had some conversations about possible technological solutions to this problem that could allow border personnel to detect drugs being smuggled in vehicles more easily.

Tester said he’s heard talk of relocating personnel from the northern border to the south, but expressed concern that smugglers would simply exploit that and suggested the borders try to get more new personnel in general.

He also stressed the importance of educating young people about the dangers of these drugs, saying as long as demand remains so will the drug problem, and the demand side of things is where the U.S. should focus its effort.

“As long as there’s a market in the United States, they’re going to try to get it in here, so we’ve got to try to dry that market up as much as possible,” he said.

Before ending the conference he also talked briefly about other work going on in the Senate, including work providing care to veterans suffering from exposure to toxic materials and appropriations bills including military equipment and humanitarian aid for Ukraine in their fight against Russia.