U.S. corn refiners say the sweetener dispute has cost them almost 1 billion dollars annually and they aren't the only ones losing trade dollars. The most publicized loss, of course, has occurred in the U.S. beef export market over concerns of mad cow disease. Those markets are slowly reopening – with the USDA announcing this week that Malaysia will resume imports of American beef. But other markets also have been a source of frustration for U.S. beef producers. On the domestic side, some farmer and rancher have long complained -- and even filed class-action lawsuits -- about anti-competitive practices by meatpackers. And this week, USDA officials testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee on their efforts to ensure competitiveness in the beef industry.
The members of the committee wanted to know why, among other things, it appeared that GIPSA investigations against the nation's four largest meatpackers appeared to have been blocked for the past five years.
Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: "While it appears that the problems identified in the report are managerial in nature, I can not emphasize enough my frustration and discomfort on behalf of America's farmers and ranchers."
In a report issued in December of 2005, the General Accounting Office reported several errors in the way GIPSA officials had been operating. The errors included, not reporting cattle slaughtered, underreporting purchases, delays in providing sales information, and inaccurate price reporting that took weeks to correct.
In January of 2006, USDA's own Office of Inspector General released an audit reporting problems within GIPSA. The investigation showed that for the past five years, GIPSA officials had inflated the total number of investigations carried out against the major meat packers and charged that GIPSA management effectively shutdown any and all investigations associated with those complaints.
Tom Harkin, D- Iowa: "Do you feel that any further action should be taken, regarding the past deputy administrator."
Phyllis Fong, Inspectors General, GIPSA: "We did not find any evidence that would lead us to make a referral to the investigative side of the house. In other words, we did not find any indication of criminal conduct, as it were, and so I'm not sure what further action could be taken at this point. "
James Link, the newest GIPSA deputy administrator, assured the committee that previous errors were being corrected.
James Link, GIPSA: "We have already begun making the fundamental changes in the culture of the organization that are essential to empower our employees to enforce the Act."
Chairman Chambliss reprimanded the USDA representatives about their work and gave Link 90 days to report back about changes to GIPSA. Chambliss indicated that failure to comply would result in another hearing.