Q: What’s driving your renewed effort to fix flaws in the livestock markets?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened public awareness about fault lines in our nation’s meat supply-chain. As consumers noticed empty shelves and sharp price-increases in the grocer’s meat-case, farmers were selling their cattle and hogs below the cost of production. Others were forced to carry out the unthinkable and euthanize hog herds and poultry flocks because of bottlenecks and breakdowns in the supply-chains.
The situation served up a double-whammy in the Farm Belt. As farmers faced severe financial hardship, sweeping unemployment led to greater food-insecurity for US households. That’s why Congress and the Trump administration significantly beefed up food assistance across 15 federal-nutrition programs and the USDA received $24.5 billion in CARES Act funding to provide direct assistance to farmers through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
When the virus forced meat-packing plants to temporarily shut down or limit production to secure workplace safety for their employees, the closures created a ripple effect from farm to fork. It also amplified another issue I’ve championed for decades — to increase transparency and competition in the marketplace to give independent producers a fair shake. Vertical integration, consolidation among meat-processors and unfair contracting-schemes put independent producers at a measurable disadvantage at the slaughter-house gate.
That’s why I ride herd on the US Department of Justice to robustly enforce anti-trust laws and continue to challenge the USDA to improve their weak-kneed enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. Family farmers and independent livestock producers lose marketplace leverage when four beef conglomerates today control 80 percent of the slaughter. When the packers control the livestock supply, the independent producer becomes a residual supplier who gets low-balled for the hard work and financial investment it takes to raise their cattle. Iowa cattle-feeders are fed up with the lack of transparency and price discovery and so am I. I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation with Senators Jon Tester and Joni Ernst and other farm state lawmakers to require that a minimum 50 percent of a meat-packer’s weekly volume of beef slaughter is purchased on the open market. Reasonable, enforceable price-discovery will restore competition to the livestock markets so that our Iowa cattle-producers get paid a fair premium for the premium products they bring to market for the consumer.
Q: How will the new Cooperative Interstate Shipment program help Iowa producers and consumers?
A: Expanding access to markets — export and domestic — is good for producers and consumers. Throughout my 29 county meetings across Iowa in July, I heard from Iowans who turned to community lockers when they found meat shortages and high prices at the grocery store. The market disruption led to a tremendous backlog at local lockers; many started booking up through the end of the year and beyond.
I’m co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation with Sen Mike Rounds of South Dakota that would allow facilities inspected by state Meat and Poultry Inspection programs to sell to consumers nationwide. Coincidentally, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has been working with local processors and the USDA for the past year to create a new program that would enable community-based meat-lockers to expand their footprint and sell across state lines.
In May, Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig signed an agreement with the USDA to participate in the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program. It will allow eligible state-inspected facilities to apply a federal-style mark of inspection and participate in interstate commerce. This program cuts red tape without undercutting food safety. It provides an opportunity for local meat-processors to deliver Iowa-grown meat and poultry to consumers outside of Iowa. The pandemic may serve as a catalyst to expand the grow-local/buy-local food movement that consumers have been driving in recent years. Locally-sourced commodities provide another opportunity for farmers to capture a larger share of the food dollar. Across Iowa, 68 processors are eligible to participate in the CIS program. I’m glad this new federal-state program will give Iowa farmers and local lockers a new outlet to get shelf space in regional grocery stores.
In July, I toured the local meat locker in Story City with Sec Naig. It’s the first Iowa meat processor to receive approval for this program. Although livestock producers can’t apply directly, their meat products can be sold across state lines if processed at a CIS facility.
To qualify for the program, a facility must have less than 25 employees and comply with all federal food safety, sanitation, and facility regulations. Eligible processors may learn more and apply online here or call (515) 281-3338 for more information. Officials from the Iowa Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau will visit facilities each day products are processed bearing the mark of inspection to give consumers confidence that livestock, meat-quality, sanitation, and record-keeping meet regulatory compliance. In addition, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will make on-site inspections to ensure federal guidelines are being upheld. Iowa joins six other states participating in the CIS program, including Indiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.