Utah’s attorney general calls for investigation into possible price-fixing by meatpackers

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference in August 2018. He's calling for an investigation into possible price-fixing by meatpackers.

Cattle prices are low and beef prices are high, and Utah’s attorney general is calling for state and federal investigations into “suspected national price-fixing” by the meatpacking industry.

“Especially now, we need to encourage fair competition in the meatpacking industry and protect consumers,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement. “We intend to ask the [Department of Justice] to conduct a vigorous investigation into the meatpacking industry.”

In a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Reyes wrote that he has “become aware of complaints from beef growers and feeders regarding apparent manipulation of cattle pricing by the processing/packing industry” — and pointed out that four companies control three-quarters of that business.

That list includes JBS Beef Company (21%), which owns a large facility in Hyrum; as well as Tyson Foods (23%); Cargill Meat Solutions (19%); and NationalBeef (12%).

“The concern over market manipulation has increased with beef prices reaching record levels as consumers stockpile meat in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but cattle prices remain low and are decreasing,” according to the release from Reyes’ office, which went on to assert that the meatpackers’ actions are harming both consumer and cattle producers, and “could violate the federal antitrust law.”

In his letter to Barr, Reyes wrote that “both federal and state enforcers should [investigate] whether, by what means, and to what extent the largest beef processors are acting in a coordinated effort to manipulate and control the pricing of both cattle and processed beef products.” And if those investigations conclude the meatpackers are not violating current regulations, Reyes wants government to explore “regulatory strategies ... to promote competition, address market manipulation and protect consumers.”

The Utah Farm Bureau Federation expressed support for an investigation.

“Our ranchers are definitely struggling right now, adapting to changing market conditions related to the current health crisis,” Ron Gibson, president of the organization, said in a statement. “We appreciate Attorney General Reyes looking into this situation to make sure the ranching families in our state are being treated fairly.

"We know the processing facilities are facing difficult conditions as well. Unfortunately, this health pandemic has cast the spotlight on some of the weaker points of our food supply system, but we look forward to improving these areas going forward.”

According to a Reyes spokesman, a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from states — including North Dakota, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming — “got the ball rolling” last month on investigating meatpacking companies. The group includes eight Republicans and three Democrats.

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