USDA's mandatory livestock price reporting system is now one year old. And while critics call it inadequate, the government has vowed to press on with the system.
The intention is to provide more price transparency in a livestock industry that's gone largely to contract and formula pricing. But critica argue the system's so-called "3 and 60" guidelines prevent full disclosure. Under that rule, USDA is prevented from reporting pricing data from markets where there are fewer than three players submitting data ... or where any of the three handles more than 60 percent of the market. The consolidation of the livestock indsutry, they point out, leaves the rule is effect nearly every day.
Government regulation of the livestock indsutry is an evolving affair. To be sure, the most high-profile regulatory undertaking, that of meat safety, was in the news again this week.
In 1999, the USDA began its experimental inspection program in 25 processing plants across the United States. The trial plan has federal meat inspectors devoting less time to the line and more time to the lab. Agriculture department officials saw the new rules as a way for processors to have more control over their operations. Plant personnel would handle more of the line inspection and sanitation still would be monitored by a representative of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
This week, the U-S-D-A decided the changes are effective and will allow processors to continue with the program on a voluntary basis.
This is not to say that the department's move to have inspectors put a more intense focus on lab results has gone without comment or concern. In 1998, while rules were still being finalized, the union that represents the more than 7600 USDA meat inspectors sued the federal government to stop the new program. At the time, proponents of the plan viewed the lawsuit as irresponsible. The inspectors countered with the worry that production lines would run faster making it more difficult to catch defects and contamination. Their fears would appear to be borne out in a recent General Accounting Office report. In the 11 chicken processing plants participating, 5 had a higher incidence of salmonella contamination and 7 showed increased bruising of product. Even so, a GAO survey showed 71% of USDA inspectors and veterinarians agreed that products were safe or safer under the new system.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin has called the new methods a recipe for disaster. Harkin, along with ranking committee member Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, is requesting further study of the program.