WASHINGTON, D.C. - A reporter's question at a morning press briefing sparked a harsh reaction from the nation's leading justice and agriculture officials. The briefing was held at the fifth and final workshop on agricultural competition sponsored by the Department of Justice and USDA.
When asked if the workshops were 'merely hand-holding sessions to make small farmers happy,' Secretary Vilsack responded sharply. "I don't think the premise of your question is accurate," he said, citing changes to poultry rules and proposed GIPSA reforms as evidence. "The reforms we proposed for GIPSA sparked over 50,000 comments, and it generated a conversation about the entire livestock industry.
"It's really unfair to the people who have been working hard over the past six months to suggest this is merely a hand-holding exercise."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed. "We'll take this as a basis for further action," he said. "There is a promise from what we have done, and we plan to make good on that promise."
The exchange neatly framed the rising expectations that have resulted from the workshops, which have provide a wide-ranging examination of competition issues in the U.S. agriculture industry and sparked similar dialogue as farmers, food processors and consumer advocates weighed in on the topic.
About 500 people, many of them farmers, came to Washington for this final workshop focusing on consumer dynamics and farm to retail margins.
The workshops began in March, 2010 in Iowa and criss-crossed the country, covering competition issues in seed, poultry, dairy and livestock. Hundreds of farmers testified, raising several concerns ranging from lack of price transparency to limited marketing choices.
According to Holder and Vilsack, the workshops have been productive.
Holder said the Justice Department's commitment to market fairness and robust competition has resulted in a Joint Task Force between the Justice and Agriculture departments, focusing on Ag markets and industry issues. "It has resulted in a simple and accessible online submission process for reporting concerns and complaints," he said. "That process is outlined on the Justice Department's website."
Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust at DOJ, told reporters the workshops resulted in "a much greater understanding of how the laws are enforced. We have brought a case against Dean Foods and we have several leads that have come out of this that we are following up on, that wouldn't have happened otherwise. We are now able to go to our colleagues (at USDA) and they can help us determine if something is a wide spread practice that needs to be followed up on."