December 10, 2011
USDA's new ruling gives more protection to farmers
The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration issued a ruling Friday (Dec 9) that will serve to protect poultry and hog farmers in several ways.
One change sets criteria for determining whether it is unlawful for a company to require growers to make expensive upgrades.
Typically in the poultry industry, the poultry company owns the chickens and the processing plant, but the farmer owns the farm and makes capital investments to the chicken houses. Farmers can make complaints to the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration about any alleged mistreatment from the industry.
The new regulations include criteria that the USDA can use in their determination of whether any poultry company is acting illegally against its farmers.
In some cases, farmers who have made costly, extensive upgrades to their chicken houses, at the requirement or suggestion of the poultry company, have subsequently been cut off by the company.
The new regulations will make it more difficult for the poultry company to do that.
If a complaint arises, the administration will be able to use the new regulations to determine whether a farmer is likely to recoup his or her investment, if a farmer is being singled out to make improvements, or if a farmer is being coerced or threatened to make upgrades.
Becky Ceartas, contract agriculture reform programme director at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, an advocacy group headquartered in Pittsboro, said the criteria spell out expectations that would help farmers.
"By these being clear, we hope the industry will self-regulate," she said.
The new rule goes into effect in 60 days.
It has taken a 1 1/2-year-long process to get the new rule in place. The 2008 Farm Bill required the Department of Agriculture to write the rule.
But there has been ongoing debate about whether the proposed rule change went beyond what Congress intended.
Opponents of the rule change, which would also have affected the beef industry, said they would cost too much. Many of the beef provisions were left out of the change.
A spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which represents chicken producer and processing companies, could not be reached Thursday. The agency had been harshly critical of the proposed rule change when a public comment period closed last year, and called it unconstitutional.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of food groups including RAFI-USA, called the new rule a "very modest first step to ensuring farmers and ranchers a fair shake in dealing with meatpackers and poultry processors."