Broiler growers from across the South on Friday took advantage of a joint USDA-Department of Justice workshop on poultry industry competition and regulation to mostly say they feel the contract production system is unfair and does not adequately address their financial needs.

During a workshop in Normal, Ala., which was attended by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, farmers – many of whom were former growers – participated in panel discussions, made comments from the floor and at times made it difficult for speakers defending the contract system to be heard.

Dissatisfied growers attending the workshop commented on a number of issues, including mandatory upgrades in facilities, the length of contracts and payments. Several growers participating in panels defended the contract broiler production system.

“[The Obama administration] is very aware of concerns that producers have about market concentration,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in opening remarks. “We have already taken steps in forming the USDA and Department of Justice joint task force to explore opportunities to harness each others’ expertise,” he said.

During a press conference at the workshop, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of a “new attitude” in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, which will be “appropriately aggressive and will look at the facts and make determinations about what action, if any, should be taken.”

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“But everybody should understand there is no hesitancy on the part of this Antitrust Division in this Department of Justice to take action where we think it is needed. This Antitrust Division is open for business,” he said. 

Secretary Vilsack ticked off a list of USDA actions already taken:

  • Increased funding currently for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) to improve enforcement over unfair and deceptive practices
  • Proposed increased funding in the 2011 budget to hire legal specialists and field investigators to help conduct more than 500 inspections
  • Publication of a final rule in December of 2009 to improve fairness in contracting in the poultry industry

The December 2009 rule insures that growers are provided a 90-day notice before their contracts can be terminated. It also stipulates that growers building houses must be provided a true, written contract on the date that the poultry company provides the poultry house specifications.

Vilsack also pointed to a proposed rule now in final clearance and expected to be issued in June that addresses issues in contracting in the livestock and poultry marketplace.