Grassley, Farm Bureau ask Pence for meat-price investigation

Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Vice President Mike Pence addresses a roundtable on the food chain in West Des Moines Friday. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and the head of the American Farm Bureau Federation appealed directly to Vice President Mike Pence in Iowa Friday to support a Justice Department investigation of possible price-fixing in the meat industry.

Pence, head of the federal coronavirus task force, was in West Des Moines in part for a roundtable with Iowa’s senators, national agricultural leaders and Hy-Vee chairman, president and CEO Randy Edeker, who led the discussion of the food supply chain as chairman of the Food Industry Association.

He appeared nearly two hours late after several people who had recent contact with an aide who had tested positive for COVID-19 had to be removed from Pence’s plane. CNN reported the aide was Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, who was not on the plane.

Members of various ag companies on Pence’s panel in Des Moines walked on stage wearing masks, then removed them. Pence was not wearing one when he arrived at his seat.

Grassley said farmers want the Justice Department to look into why prices are low for cattle but high when consumers get to grocery store meat departments. President Trump this week said he supports an investigation.

“You can’t appreciate enough the economic distress that comes with these low prices and the emotional distress,” Grassley said. “They want to know why they are losing hundreds of dollars on cattle but spending more for beef at the market.

“Things aren’t very good right now on the farm,” Grassley said. “We don’t want to be worrying about being nine meals away from rioting,” he added, citing an old saying about farm unrest.

Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation president, also called for the investigation.

“We have serious concerns about market manipulation,” Duvall told Pence and other panelists.. “We are frustrated by rock-bottom prices we are paid and sky-high prices some of us are paying at the market.

“The farmers and ranchers are coming unhinged when they see that because they are losing their farms,” Duvall added. At the same time, federal pandemic aid “won’t come close” to covering farmers’ losses from pandemic disruptions and the trade war with China.

Duvall said farmers are worried that the Phase One pact with China won’t result in the promised $40 billion in purchases of U.S. farm commodities.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the pandemic has enlightened many about the fact that food doesn’t originate at the stores. “We are in a great awakening about where our food comes from,” she said.

She called for the creation of a White House Office of Food Supply Chain to help build on what she sees as a highly successful effort to keep food in the stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview after the event, Edeker said the prices are rising because of short supply due to plant closures caused by the pandemic.

“I don’t have that answer,” Edeker said of high prices for beef and low prices for corn fed to cattle. “We negotiate a price from our suppliers. If anything, whenever beef prices or pork prices get high, our margins go down. Always remember, our customers are farmers.”

When asked why beef prices had not dropped along with corn prices over the past several years, Edeker said Hy-Vee has kept its same margin on meat sales. The prices are rising earlier in the chain, he said.

Pence appeared at Hy-Vee headquarters in West Des Moines. He also met with religious leaders about how to open churches safely.

Tyson announced Friday that its plants in Perry and Waterloo, and three spread across three other states, will resume full production next week.

Pence repeatedly praised Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Grassley and Ernst, meatpackers and grocers for their efforts to keep stores open and stocked.

“You’ve done an incredible job of keeping food on the table in the midst of a national crisis,” Pence said. “It may well turn out to be your finest hour, a time when the industry stepped up and met the moment. At at some personal risk to themselves, whether it be people working in the main processing plant or whether it be people running cash registers, or people traveling around the country, driving trucks and working in warehouses.”

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