Topeka — Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would require packers to disclose the prices they pay for cattle.
A group of Kansas cattlemen brought a big beef to the Statehouse on Wednesday.
Four huge meat processing companies dominate the market, they told lawmakers, and if something doesn't change soon small producers and feedlots will be out of business, "or slaves to the big packers and processors," said Mike Schultz of the recently formed Kansas Cattlemen Assn.
The complaints were aired before the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is considering a bill that would require packers to report daily the prices paid for cattle. The bill also would bar the processing giants from discriminatory pricing or retaliation against critics of industry concentration.
Similar legislation is being pushed at the federal level and in other farm states. South Dakota's Senate just passed a similar law.
Opponents of Senate Bill 258, including the Kansas Livestock Assn., are slated to testify against it Monday.
Mike Callicrate, owner of a 12,000-head feedlot in St. Francis, told lawmakers that in January, meatpacking giant Conagra sold 7,250 head of cattle to fellow huge processor IBP below the open market price, intentionally driving down prices for smaller producers.
"There is an economic term to describe this phenomenon," Callicrate said. "It's called stealing."
Publicly reported prices will discourage anti-competitive practices, bill backers said.
Meanwhile, "our livelihood is being stolen," said Roy Dixon of Brewster. "If we are truly pro-business in this country, we must restore competition."
Elroy Heim, who manages Callicrate Feedyards, told the committee that his operation "has been denied access to the market for three years."
Because he and his boss have been publicly critical of industry concentration, the big companies no longer send buyers around, he said. When they do, the sellers have only a few minutes to decide on below-market offers.
"I believe IBP sets the price and the other packers follow," Heim testified.
The cattlemen and their supporters said they fear the beef industry will become like the vertically integrated poultry industry, where processing companies own the chickens from birth to slaughter and farmers raise the animals under contract.
"They (the packers) will control everything from the gene to the grocery shelf," said Cliff Smedley of Johnson.
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