Federal regulators are set to release the most sweeping antitrust rules covering the meat industry in decades, potentially altering the balance of power between meat companies and the farmers who raise their animals.

Activists, farmers and meat industry officials have been anxiously awaiting the new rules, which will be released this spring for public comment and are set to take effect this summer, reports the Associated Press. The regulations are seen as a kind of litmus test for the Obama administration and how far it will go in regulating competition in the meat industry.

At issue is how much power farmers have as they produce cattle, hogs and chickens for large companies such as JBS SA, Smithfield Farms and Tyson Foods. The new rules will govern how meatpackers buy their cattle on an open market and what demands poultry companies can make on the independent contractors who raise their chickens.

"We have high hopes for them," said Mike Weaver, a West Virginia poultry farmer who raises chickens under contract for Pilgrim's Pride. "We've been promised that there will be sweeping changes in these new rules, but nobody's seen them."

The 2008 Farm Bill required updated rules but left the specifics to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm state lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, had long been concerned a lack of competition among meat companies was driving down prices farmers were paid for their cattle and poultry.

Just four companies buy and slaughter 80 percent of all U.S. beef, limiting competition in the meat industry. Meanwhile, big poultry companies dictate chicken prices and can demand farmers take on debt to upgrade their chicken houses for the companies' benefit.

Farmers such as Weaver, who has met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, think the new leaders in the USDA's antitrust division will push for tougher and more far-reaching regulations than previous administrations. Some believe the new rules could be the strongest antitrust protections imposed since the Great Depression.

There's also a risk they will drive up the cost of meat, eating into meatpackers' profits or pushing up prices at grocery stores if companies pass on the expense.

The USDA wouldn't say when its proposed rules will be released, but the Farm Bill requires new regulations be in place by this summer. The bill lays out a broad outline of what the rules must address, but the all-important details won't be known until a proposal becomes public.

Among issues expected to be addressed in the new rules is when it's illegal for companies to choose one producer's cattle or hogs over another's.

Ranchers have complained that meatpackers make their choices with an aim toward keeping prices low. For example, meatpackers might pass by independent ranchers to buy cattle raised under contracts that guarantee processors a lower price.

Companies such as Tyson Foods, which produces beef, chicken and pork, will be ready to challenge rules they consider too strict.

"We're already in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the nation and take compliance with the law very seriously," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an e-mail. "However, we don't believe additional rules are needed to control the relationship between livestock and poultry producers and food companies like ours."

Source: Associated Press

Agri Star begins kosher beef processing

A Postville kosher slaughterhouse that went bankrupt after a federal immigration raid nearly two years ago is growing and on target to return to earlier production levels, its new owner said Tuesday.

Hershey Friedman, the owner of Agri Star Meat and Poultry, said at a Statehouse news conference that the company had put its troubled past behind it. It has begun producing beef again, continues to hire more workers and has modernized its plant with help from the state, reports the Associated Press.

"We feel we can grow back to the same place they were," Friedman said.

Friedman said Agri Star has begun slaughtering about 90 head of cattle each day. That's far below Agriprocessors' peak production, but Friedman said he plans to increase slaughtering to 150 head of cattle within the next month and to have the plant running at Agriprocessors' production level in about a year.

Managers are taking steps to avoid the labor problems seen under Agriprocessors, Friedman said. They use the federal government's E-verify system to validate new hires' identification. Agri Star also pays more, with most of its 560 workers making $8.50 to $17 an hour, he said.

Postville Mayor Leigh Rekow attended the news conference and said the northeast Iowa town was hurt by Agriprocessors' closure but is doing better now.

"With the plant opening, all these people have hope again," Rekow said. "Our community has been very positive that we will survive, and we will get back to where we were and maybe even be better."

Source: Associated Press

PM Beef receives food safety certification for second year

For the second consecutive year, PM Beef has been named a Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 Level 3 Certified Supplier by the SQF Institute, a division of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Last year PM Beef became the first U.S. beef harvest facility to receive this certification, which signifies that the company meets the requirements of one of the most stringent standards for food safety and quality in the industry.

"We are honored to be named an SQF-certified supplier for the second year in a row," said Lisa Hernandez, vice president of quality assurance and food safety at PM Beef. "We have always maintained the highest food safety and quality standards, so this certification, coming from such a prestigious international organization as the Food Marketing Institute, validates our internal commitment and helps set us apart from our competitors."

SQF certification is an important part of the buyer/supplier relationship, as it builds confidence, demonstrates compliance with regulatory and product traceability requirements, and provides a structure for implementing and demonstrating sustainable production and manufacturing best practices. SQF is internationally recognized and meets the standards of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). It also promotes cost savings by providing "one system, one audit."

"We are committed to earning SQF certification year after year," noted Hernandez. "SQF training will thus be an ongoing process, so we can ensure that all current and future PM Beef employees share this understanding of and commitment to the highest safety and quality standards."

"SQF certification means a company meets the most stringent standards for food safety and quality in the industry," said Jill Hollingsworth, DVM, FMI group vice president of food safety programs. "The integrity of the SQF program relies on committed, effective, and competent implementation of the SQF systems, so we commend PM Beef for their efforts in achieving this certification for the second year in a row."

Source: PM Beef

Steelers QB too jerky for beef jerky deal

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback has lost his endorsement deal with PLB Sports and its Big Ben Beef Jerky, after the athlete came under fire for an alleged allegations made against him in a Georgia sexual assault case. The local district attorney announced Monday that no charges would be filed, but that did not change the mind of Ty Ballou, owner of Pittsburgh's PLB Sports.

“I can't imagine anyone touching Ben Roethlisberger. Enough is enough. I hope there is a suspension,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “At some point in time, Ben has got to put himself in the right position and understand what it means to be a celebrity, a quarterback, a Steelers player."

Ballou added that he has had many endorsement deals with athletes and has never terminated one before.

"We've made a lot of money together. I'm leaving a lot on the table by terminating this contract,” he said. “Even thought there were no criminal charges, there are just enough issues here that it's the best interests of PLB Sports to break ties.”

Sources: USA Today, New York Times