Our Top 2023 Headlines: Stories from the Movement against Monopoly Power in the Food System

In 2023, our work made an impact on so many issues in our food system — and the press took notice. Here are the biggest stories of the year in our movement to take down monopoly power in the food system.

Pushing Agencies to Fulfill the Promises of the Executive Order on Competition

All throughout 2023, we stayed focused on holding the Biden administration accountable to the promises made in the executive order to improve competition across the economy. While some historic advances have been made, critical work has yet to be done to level the playing field — and time is running out.

POLITICO | Making the Grade?

POLITICO reported on the release of Farm Action’s second report card grading the administration’s progress toward the goals of the executive order on competition.

Marketplace | White House moves to stop alleged food price gouging

Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell told NPR’s Marketplace that dominant food corporations had “the ability to literally set the price as high as they want,” leading to higher prices for consumers. In keeping with the executive order’s “whole of government” approach, to address this issue the USDA challenged state attorneys general to partner on increased antitrust enforcement to tackle abuses like price gouging.

Agri-Pulse | USDA warns seed companies to adhere to labeling requirements

When USDA warned dominant seed corporations to observe labeling requirements, Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell told Agri-Pulse it was a positive sign that USDA is following through on this commitment under the executive order.

POLITICO | ‘Rome’s burning’: Small farmers complain Biden administration is fiddling as they vanish

POLITICO reported on farmers’ widespread and justifiable frustration with the USDA’s slow progress toward the essential Packers and Stockyards Act rulemakings. This earned the Department a “C” in our 2023 report card.

The Farm Action holds the administration’s feet to the fire in Washington D.C.

New York Times | The Chicken Tycoons vs. the Antitrust Hawks

Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell told the New York Times that last year’s DOJ ruling banning Wayne-Sanderson Farms from using the tournament pay system “is the start of something bigger” and should prompt a long-awaited USDA rule banning the practice outright. 

Still, it’s important to remember that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack failed chicken growers during his two USDA stints under Obama. “Our definition of insanity is hiring Vilsack back a third time and expecting a different result,” Maxwell said.

The Hill | Federal regulators take a bite out of meat monopolies

Time is running out to accomplish the goals of the executive order, Farm Action’s Angela Huffman told The Hill, noting that the remaining rules all must be finalized by May; otherwise, they are vulnerable to being overturned. 

“This is the same travesty against competition that happened during the Obama administration on Secretary Vilsack’s watch,” Huffman said. “The Biden administration should take heed: In the absence of swift action, history could easily repeat itself.”

Ending Checkoff Corruption

Famous promotional campaigns like “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Pork. The Other White Meat” are the products of government-mandated checkoff programs, which have long been plagued by corruption and controversy. Our work to shed light on the murky workings of the checkoff attracted a lot of attention in 2023.

The American Prospect | Farmers Pay Big Ag to Lobby Against Them

​​Farm Action Fund’s Angela Huffman told The American Prospect that “America’s farmers and ranchers are tired of their checkoff tax dollars being funneled through the government and into the hands of trade and lobbying groups that work against fair competition and market transparency.”

The Hill | ‘Got Milk’ has got to go, left and right agree

The D.C.-facing publication The Hill published an in-depth piece illustrating the influence that checkoff-funded lobbying groups have as the voice of their industries on the Capitol Hill, “even though they speak for a small minority of American farmers,” said Angela Huffman. This story captured the bipartisan Congressional interest in reforming checkoff programs through the next farm bill.

Investigate Midwest | The National Pork Board gives more grant money than any other checkoff. Critics say it favors Big Pork

The pork checkoff provides one example of how checkoffs currently benefit big corporations over independent farmers and ranchers. Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell told Investigate Midwest that while the pork checkoff is supposed to represent the industry as a whole, much of the checkoff-funded research only applies to big industry needs. “The research has been captured by the biggest meat companies.”

POLITICO | USDA publishes 2020 Dairy Checkoff Report, Two Others Still Pending

Checkoff oversight has been notoriously lax, and in the case of the dairy checkoff, downright negligent. POLITICO reported on a letter sent by a bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers urging USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to submit three missing annual reports on the dairy checkoff program to Congress, as required by federal law.

The Congressional letter came after Farm Action and the National Dairy Producers Organization exposed the missing reports in June, and requested their release in a letter to the USDA. “It is unfortunate that it took a letter from Congress to shake USDA’s tree and get them to respond to the farmers they should be accountable to,” said Angela Huffman.

Cracking Down on Dominant Egg Companies’ Price Gouging

Early in 2023, our team noticed (along with everyone else) that egg prices were going through the roof. We did some digging and found that retail egg prices had nearly tripled for consumers — a 138% increase — even as dominant egg companies were raking in five-fold profit margins. In the media, dominant egg corporations were blaming inflation and avian flu, but our research proved these to be mere excuses.

So we sent a letter to the FTC, demanding an investigation. Our work to crack open the case of runaway egg prices earned a spotlight in hundreds of outlets, including the Today Show, Reuters, Time, Forbes, Fox Business, Vice, Yahoo Finance, CNBC, The Hill, AP, The Guardian, CNN, and many, many more.

Today Show | Why Are Eggs So Expensive Right Now?

The Today Show reported our analysis that egg companies were colluding to take advantage of inflation and the public’s limited knowledge of the industry to “extract egregious profits.”

TIME Magazine | How Food Companies' Massive Profits Are Making Your Groceries More Expensive

Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell explained to TIME Magazine how consumers experience the effects of concentration in our food system. “Today a primary cause of food inflation in this country is the market concentration that allows for price gouging,” he said.

Farm Action’s letter made an appearance on the Today Show.

The Guardian | $18 a Dozen: How Did America’s Eggs Get Absurdly Expensive?

Angela Huffman told The Guardian about our research into egg companies’ record-breaking profits. “Dominant egg corporations are blaming inflation and avian flu [for the price hikes], but why are they raking in fivefold profit margins?”

The Daily Yonder | Record-Breaking Egg Profits Prompt Accusation of Price Gouging

MSN News picked up a story by the Daily Yonder about our analysis that the egg situation revealed a broken market. “If our market was truly competitive and working the way it’s supposed to work, then if one dominant firm tries to raise their price, another firm should try to take their market share,” said Farm Action’s Sarah Carden.

Reuters | High Egg Prices Should Be Investigated, U.S. Farm Group Says

As egg prices continued soaring, Reuters, Forbes, and many others reported on our research and letter to the FTC, demanding an investigation into the dominant egg companies.

The Hill | Senator Calls for Investigation into Egg Price Gouging

Eventually, lawmakers began to echo our alarm. The Hill reported on Senator Jack Reed’s call for the FTC to investigate.

Fighting for a Fair Farm Bill

The important package of legislation that shapes the structure of and funding for our food and farm system faced a series of complications in 2023, leading Congress to pass a one-year extension of the 2018 Farm Bill in November of 2023. This gives us more time to advance our recommendations of our Fair Farm Bill campaign, which would transform the policy and financial structures that power food production and distribution in the U.S. and create a more fair, sustainable, and healthy system.

The Hill | Five fights brewing in the crucial $1.4 trillion farm bill

In The Hill’s roundup of the five most controversial debates related to the farm bill, Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell explained that misguided policies in past farm bills turned the U.S. farm system “from a network of family businesses to one dominated by a few large corporations, from seed and feed to the grocery store.”

Successful Farmer | Vocal Opponents Aim to Defeat the EATS Act

Farm Action Fund launched the Defeat EATS coalition to fight back against the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, which would strip state and local governments of their ability to make agricultural policies within their own borders.

“The EATS Act would accelerate market concentration in the food and agriculture industries to the benefit of a handful of multinational corporate agribusinesses,” Missouri farmer Joe Maxwell and Farm Action Fund President Joe Maxwell told Successful Farmer.

Agri-Pulse | Opinion: Farmers demand accountability and efficiency in government checkoff programs

Farm Action Fund’s Angela Huffman penned an op-ed for Agri-Pulse identifying the “root of chronic corruption” in agricultural checkoff programs: namely, that lobbying groups like NCBA can use farmers’ own dollars to lobby against farmers’ best interests. More than 60 farm groups — representing hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers — are calling for the OFF Act to be included in the farm bill, which would prevent checkoff funds from going to groups that lobby on agriculture legislation.

The Hill | Opinion: The 2023 farm bill should empower farmers to feed America

As farm bill debates began heating up, Farm Action’s Angela Huffman published an op-ed with Representative Ro Khanna in The Hill calling on Congress to address multiple crises in the American food system by changing farm bill policies to prioritize food, not feed.

In fact, a survey found that 78 percent of Americans want federal farm funding to prioritize food for people over feed for livestock.

This fact was spotlit at Farm Action’s historic Food Not Feed Summit in Washington, D.C., where Senator Booker spoke. 

Farm Action’s historic Food Not Feed Summit in Washington, D.C.

The American Prospect | How Washington Bargained Away Rural America

In a piece in The American Prospect that illustrated some of the defining conflicts over farm bill funding, Farm Action was described as “leading the charge” with our “decade-long strategy to accomplish reform goals.” 

“Our coalition’s goal is to shift the entire conversation in Congress for years to come to make the family farm the center of our government’s policies, not industry,” said Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell.

Stopping the Fertilizer Price Hikes

Farm Action has worked to spotlight suspicious price hikes and troubling mergers in the fertilizer sector via calls for investigation, testifying to Congress, and releasing research reports.

NPR and PBS | The Price of Plenty

The journalism schools at the University of Florida and the University of Missouri collaborated on an investigative series into chemical fertilizers, which highlighted our research and quoted members of our staff.

The Wall Street Journal | Farmers Worry $8.2 Billion Agriculture Deal Will Diminish Competition

Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell explained to the Wall Street Journal that a pending merger would give the fertilizer corporation Bunge a troubling degree of control over ports and grain terminals, and create bottlenecks in the agricultural supply chain.

“Product of USA” Labels Should Mean Exactly That

Current USDA policy allows imported meat to be mislabeled as “Product of U.S.A.” Global food corporations find it very profitable to deceive U.S. consumers and drive U.S. family farmers and ranchers out of business while our government has looked the other way.

In 2018 we filed a petition making the legal case for the USDA to stop allowing imported meat to bear a “Product of U.S.A.” label. After a five year fight, in 2023 USDA proposed a new rule that would end this fraudulent practice.

Detroit Metro Times | USDA proposes new rules on who can use ‘Product of USA’ labels

In the Detroit Metro Times, Farm Action’s Dee Laninga explained how current law allows the “Product of U.S.A” label to be used if the product simply passes through a U.S. inspection plant.

DTN/Progressive Farmer | Beef Groups Respond to USDA Proposal for Labeling US Beef

When the USDA released a proposal allowing the “Product of U.S.A” label claim to be exclusively used on animals born, raised, slaughtered, and processed in the U.S., Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell told DTN/Progressive Farmer that “[a]fter a five-year fight, we’re pleased to see the USDA stepping up to stop the cheaters picking the pockets of America’s farmers and ranchers.”

Restoring the Right to Repair

Multinational farm equipment manufacturers like John Deere are preventing farmers from fixing their own tractors and crushing independent repair shops by forbidding everyone except a few authorized dealers from accessing necessary diagnostic tools. Restoring the right to repair will help us reclaim the spirit of self-sufficiency and innovation in rural America. The Right to Repair movement has gained momentum at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in Congress, and in state houses across the country.

The American Prospect | John Deere says farmers can fix their own tractors—sometimes

Farm equipment monopoly John Deere agreed to an MOU with the American Farm Bureau that makes it a little bit easier for farmers and independent repair shops to work on Deere equipment — but also prevents the Farm Bureau from supporting any state-level right to repair legislation or additional protections.

Advocates like Farm Action Local Leader Willie Cade told The American Prospect he was wary of the MOU, which “seems targeted at taking the wind out of our sails.”

The Daily Yonder | Colorado’s right to repair law could save farmers time, money and spur local business

Colorado became the first state in the nation to enshrine farmers’ “right to repair” their own equipment in 2023.

The new legislation requires manufacturers to provide owners and independent businesses with the necessary software, parts, manuals, and other tools they need to repair agricultural equipment

“We’re gonna return a lot of money to the farmer’s pocket and reduce the burden that they suffer,” Farm Action Fund’s Joe Van Wye told the Daily Yonder.

Colorado Governor Polis signs the nation’s first agricultural Right to Repair bill into law.

See you in the headlines next year!

2023 may be mostly in the rearview mirror — but we’ll keep speaking up on behalf of farmers, ranchers, and workers in 2024, keeping our headlights on the issues that matter.

Written and edited by Dee Laninga, Angela Huffman, and Joe Maxwell.