CHICAGO Dec 14 The U.S. Department of
Agriculture proposed rules on Wednesday it said will help
protect chicken producers from mistreatment by the small group
of meat companies that control most of the country's production.
With less than six weeks left to the Obama administration,
the agency clarified that individual farmers who feel they have
been treated unfairly do not need to show the entire poultry
industry was harmed to prove wrongdoing by a processor.
Two other rules would establish criteria for determining
when companies have treated producers unfairly.
Proponents of the changes, including the National Farmers
Union, said they hoped Republican President-elect Donald Trump's
administration would allow them to take effect, citing the
support he received from rural voters in the Nov. 8 election.
However, agricultural associations opposed to the rules said
the regulations were overreaching. The National Pork Producers
Council, a trade group, said they were "an apparent attack on
rural America for its role in helping elect Donald Trump as
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, USDA Secretary
Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, said that accusation was "absurd."
"This has got nothing to do with the election of 2016," he
said. "This has everything to do with what's fair to producers."
Vilsack said it was "common sense" to clarify how producers
must prove they were harmed and that the position represented a
long-held view at the USDA. The agency said it acted to clarify
the rule after four courts of appeal disagreed with the rule's
Four meat processors, including Tyson Foods Inc,
control 51 percent of the U.S. market for chicken meat,
according to the USDA. It said they "can often wield market
power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how
much they are paid, or pitting them against each other."
Tyson, the top chicken producer, said the rules were "bad
for farmers, food companies and consumers, and we'll be working
with others in the livestock and meat business to address it."
A spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride Corp, which is the
second biggest chicken producer and mostly owned by meat packer
JBS SA, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Weaver, who raises chickens for Pilgrim's Pride and is
president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the
Virginias, said he hoped the rules would give farmers more
freedom to speak out against abuses.
"Everybody needs these types of protections against these
multinational companies that are running agriculture in this
country," he said.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)