Today, I’ve been thinking about beef.
Not just any beef: Beef from hardworking independent family ranchers in California. Local beef raised on the grass of our fine state. Beef that’s sought after by many a restaurateur in the Bay Area, San Diego and Los Angeles.
As those restaurateurs would readily admit, we don’t have enough of it. That’s in part because we don’t have enough people to raise the animals: in the last 20 years, California has lost half of its small and midsized independent ranchers.
It would be good for pretty much everyone if the trend were reversed. Urban eaters want these ranchers’ products, and rural communities could certainly use the jobs. So why are Representatives Costa, Cardoza and Baca – all Democrats who sit on the House Agriculture Committee – selling out California’s remaining family ranchers as a favor to big national meatpackers like Cargill and Tyson? And why is Senator Feinstein refusing to defend her ranching constituency?
I have to say, I have serious beef with their priorities.
For years, U.S. meatpackers – four enormous companies that buy and slaughter nearly 85% of all the cattle raised in the U.S. – have been trampling on America’s independent family ranchers. They prefer to buy cattle from large feedlots (some of which they themselves own) than deal with smaller independent producers, and they’ve voiced this preference by paying the small guys less for their animals than they pay the big guys, even when the quality of the animals is exactly the same. This effectively shuts the smaller guys out of the market and drives them out of business.
There’s an agency charged with cracking down on this sort of anti-competitive behavior. It’s called GIPSA – the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration – and it’s part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, like many well-intentioned agencies, GIPSA has never lived up to expectations. Congress gave it a good mission, but it didn’t give it the backbone it needed to get the job done.
That changed in the 2008 Farm Bill, when a coalition of family farmer and rancher, food justice, and consumer groups pushed Congress to require GIPSA to finally use its power and create new rules declaring specific bad behavior by meatpackers to be off-limits. The big meatpackers responded by putting pressure on USDA not to finalize the rules, and USDA has been stalling for a year. The industry would be content for it to stall forever.
Enter Jim Costa, whose Fresno-area district is home to many family ranchers, but also to a Cargill meatpacking plant. He made it clear whose side he was on when he took the lead on drafting a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to reopen and revise (read: gut) the GIPSA rules. A tiny portion of the letter’s signatories were Democrats, but the short list included Costa’s colleagues on the House Agriculture Committee, Reps. Cardoza and Baca.
The bad House letter comes on the heels of a disappointing response from Senator Feinstein’s office on the same issue. Organizations around the state, including California Farmers Union, the California State Grange, Ecological Farming Association, and my group, Food&Water Watch, asked Senators Boxer and Feinstein to stand up for California’s farmers and consumers by urging USDA to do its job and finalize the GIPSA rule. Feinstein’s response: she would not be taking a position on the GIPSA issue, at least not right now.
I’m tired of seeing the majority Congress do the right thing – in this case, give GIPSA the power to police anti-competitive behavior by meatpackers – just to have a minority put its thumb down, squashing farmers and eaters in the process.
It’s a lot like country of origin labeling, a victory in the 2002 Farm Bill that was supposed to help shoppers distinguish between, say, garlic from California and garlic from China. A win-win for U.S. farmers and consumers, right? It took six years for COOL to be implemented. That’s because big food companies and retailers bringing in cheap produce from abroad didn’t want consumers to have a choice, and some members of Congress were willing to throw themselves in the way of COOL to keep them from having one.
By throwing themselves in the way of GIPSA, Reps. Costa, Cardoza and Baca are allowing big meatpackers to railroad California’s independent ranchers and are further depriving consumers around the state of access to local meat.
Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and House members like Santa Cruz’s Sam Farr, should do what’s right for independent farmers and ranchers, consumers, and our local economy. That means defending GIPSA. Because it may be fine for our beef to be rare, but California’s ranchers shouldn’t be.
Elanor Starmer is Western Region Director for Food & Water Watch, which is organizing a national call-in day to President Obama on GIPSA on June 22. Find out more by joining their list at www.foodandwaterwatch.org.