On Friday, March 12, 2010, Nyemaster Goode attorneys Keith Luchtel, Willard Boyd, and Ryan Koopmans attended a workshop held jointly by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA"). The workshop, which was the first in a series of workshops that will be held around the country, focused on the competitive issues in the agricultural industry, with specific focus on intellectual property issues arising from the creation of genetically modified seeds, and consolidation and vertical integration in the pork industry.
Several federal and state leaders spoke at the event, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, DOJ Antitrust Division Chief Christine Varney, Senator Charles Grassley, Congressman Leonard Boswell, Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and the Attorney Generals of Missouri, Montana, and Ohio.
In his opening remarks, Attorney General Holder stated that the DOJ is committed "to enforcing the antitrust laws in the ag sector," but he also lamented that "enforcement of the antitrust laws does not fully address the concerns of farmers and other stakeholders."
Attorney General Holder's statements embodied the common theme of the day: if the antitrust laws do not prohibit concentration in the agricultural industry, then the government will rely on other statutory provisions to ensure that small farms remain viable.
In this vein, Iowa Attorney General Miller suggested that he may employ consumer protection statutes and the Packers and Stockyards Act—which prohibits "unfair practices"— to deal with of the undue influence that he believes large companies have on the agricultural industry. Senator Grassley called on the DOJ and USDA to provide greater enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
Most of the speakers, including Attorney General Holder, noted that "big isn't always bad," but the participants clearly indicated that the federal and state governments will closely scrutinize companies' actions in the agricultural industry, particularly mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, both Holder and Varney highlighted the DOJ's recent lawsuit against Dean Foods, in which the government is asking a court to unwind Dean Food's acquisition of two Midwest dairy processing plants.
Upon her confirmation in April 2009, Antitrust Chief Varney stated that she would focus DOJ's enforcement efforts on the agricultural sector. At the workshop, Varney repeated this promise.
Given the increased scrutiny of the agricultural industry, companies in the food supply chain should be sensitive to issues concerning competition.
For further information, contact Keith Luchtel, a shareholder in the firm's Governmental Affairs Department; Willard Boyd, a shareholder in the firm's Business, Finance, and Real Estate Department; or Ryan Koopmans, an associate in the firm's Litigation Department.