Standing Up for South Dakota’s Livestock Producers
South Dakota’s number one industry is agriculture, and for years, farmers and ranchers have been dealing with difficulties including trade uncertainty, low commodity prices and price disparities between what they receive versus what the consumer pays at the grocery store for the product. These issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 outbreaks at processing plants have forced them to shut down temporarily, resulting in fewer facilities available for producers to process their livestock. Not only does this affect producers and processing plant workers, it impacts all Americans who rely on a steady food supply chain to put food on the table for their families each day.
As of May 9, total cattle slaughter in the U.S. was down 32 percent compared to the same time in 2019. This has created a backlog of approximately 882,000 cattle waiting to be processed. The pork and poultry industries are facing similar backlogs resulting in protein shortages nationwide. The last thing we want to see is a nationwide food shortage during this time.
These issues are serious enough to finally have drawn support for some of the measures we’ve been working on. My original March 19 letter to the Department of Justice requesting an investigation into packer concentration has now drawn the support of numerous other members of the Senate, and the president has now publicly stated his interest in seeing the same investigation proceed. We’ve also seen more support for legislation that I’ve introduced with Sen. Angus King of Maine. This legislation—called the New Markets for State Inspected Meat and Poultry Act—would allow us to sell state-inspected meat and poultry across state lines. Currently, if you had meat or poultry inspected by a South Dakota inspector in Hudson, South Dakota, you wouldn’t be able to sell it across the border in Iowa, but you could sell it several hundred miles away in Lemmon, South Dakota. It really doesn’t make much sense, especially since state meat and poultry inspection facilities are required by law to be at least equal to federally inspected processing facilities. A number of senators, from both sides of the aisle, have now joined me in a letter to Senate leaders urging them to include this legislation in any future COVID-19 response efforts. This measure would help to change our food supply chain for the long-term by making it easier for Americans to get high-quality meat from local processors.
Consumers want and deserve to know where the beef they buy at the store originally came from. Bringing back mandatory country of origin labeling—or MCOOL—has been a hot topic in the ag community since it was eliminated in 2015 due to trade restrictions. I recently partnered with Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to introduce bipartisan legislation that would require negotiations to reinstate MCOOL. Specifically, it calls for the U.S. Trade Representative to enter into negotiations that would allow for MCOOL to be reinstated without the threat of tariffs. Our bill is the most meaningful legislation that I’ve seen in five years—we have bipartisan, cross-country support for it. However, we need President Trump to work to remove tariff barriers. Otherwise bringing back MCOOL would threaten every other commodity, including soybeans, sugar, cotton, corn and ethanol. Our legislation begins an important conversation on food security in America. As we continue to gain support for our measure, we’ll work to include it in any upcoming must-pass COVID-19 legislation.
I also recently introduced legislation to increase transparency in cattle pricing so producers receive a fairer price for their product by requiring that a minimum of 50 percent of a meat packer’s weekly volume of beef slaughter be purchased on the open or spot market. Cattle prices in South Dakota are affected by the average negotiated cash trade nationwide which has dropped dramatically over the past 15 years. The decrease in cash trades has reduced price discovery. In order to establish a fair cattle market for cattle producers, real, vigorous price discovery is needed. This is only one piece of what needs to be fixed in the cattle market, but it’s an important step forward.
As Americans focus on keeping their families safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m working to remove some of the roadblocks livestock producers are facing so that they can continue to provide high quality food for families across the country.