POLITICO | Competition Corner: Making the Grade?

Reposted from: https://www.politico.com/newsletters/weekly-agriculture/2023/07/17/appropriations-crypto-and-monopoly-oh-my-00106549

One year after their first report card, the antimonopoly groups the Open Markets Institute and Farm Action have released a new assessment on how the agencies are doing to boost competition in food and agricultural markets as directed in Biden’s 2021 executive order.

Progress: USDA, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission all received improved grades from the groups but advocates warn that the agencies are running out of time for some of the most important antimonopoly initiatives.

Specifically, the groups applauded the FTC for its work on cracking down on noncompete clauses, which prevent workers from seeking a job at a competing company, and praised the FTC’s lawsuit against pesticide manufacturers. However, the report urged the agency to enforce antitrust law Robinson-Patman Act by issuing guidance to industry. The law is especially important in grocery retail, proponents say.

As for the DOJ, antimonopoly advocates are eagerly awaiting updated merger guidelines, which are expected to be more stringent than previous iterations. The groups also say that DOJ needs to bring at least one major case intended to break up food and agriculture monopolies.

USDA’s grade: The groups said they were pleased with the department’s work on “Product of USA” labeling, which proponents say would increase transparency for consumers and will garner a premium price for American ranchers. Advocates also appreciated reports USDA has published on competition and the seed industry. A third report, on retail market concentration, remains outstanding and is now more relevant with the proposed Kroger-Albertsons deal.

Room for improvement: The groups are disappointed with USDA’s work on using federal procurement to boost small businesses and influence corporate behavior.

But perhaps most critically, the groups say they are “deeply concerned” with USDA’s progress on rulemaking intended to make contracts for poultry farmers more fair, strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act and protect farmers from industry retaliation. USDA has proposed two rules so far and a third is expected this month. A fourth rule, which advocates say “is widely acknowledged as the most important rule,” is not expected until November, setting up a timeline where the rule could be vulnerable to the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to roll back rules.

“We are also concerned that USDA seems to be missing the bigger picture,” the groups wrote in their report. “It is clearly committed to supporting a broader range of producers and has introduced improvements to its anticompetitive enforcement toolbox, but USDA appears to lack conviction when it comes to confronting corporate control of our food supply chain.”