USDA’s Farmer Fairness Portal: An FAQ
- Anyone who has experienced or observed a possible violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act or other federal fair competition laws in the livestock sector may now submit a complaint or tip to farmerfairness.gov.
- Fully anonymous complaint submissions are allowed, and the confidentiality of those who submit complaints with their contact information will be protected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to the fullest extent of the law.
- USDA confirmed to the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA) that all names and identifying information from Farmer Fairness portal submissions will be redacted or withheld from any response USDA makes to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, regardless of investigation status.
- If you are unsure about submitting a complaint and want to discuss your situation further, you can contact RAFI-USA for free support and consultation.
- If you are a farmer, farmworker, food system worker, or other food supply chain stakeholder and want to make your voice heard about policy issues you care about, you can join RAFI-USA’s Policy Action Network.
In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice announced the launch of farmerfairness.gov, a new one-stop portal where producers and the public can report potential violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act and other federal fair competition laws in the livestock and poultry industries. Complaints submitted to this portal will be investigated via a new collaborative interagency effort that includes officials from both the USDA and DOJ throughout the investigative process. This new tool will make it very easy for farmers to submit complaints or tips online for investigation, which will become increasingly important as the USDA releases its new Packers and Stockyards rules throughout 2022.
RAFI-USA is encouraged by the accessibility of this new tool, but ultimately the success of this renewed effort by the USDA and DOJ will depend on farmers’ ability to trust the process and alert regulators to possible unfair practices or legal violations. Knowing this, we reached out to the USDA with questions farmers might have about this new tool and process, which we answer in detail below.
Submitting a complaint to the USDA and DOJ is a decision that has different implications and considerations depending on every farmer’s unique circumstances. If you think you may have experienced or observed unfair practices or violations of fair competition laws in the livestock industry, but are unsure about submitting a complaint and want to discuss your situation further, you can contact RAFI-USA for free support and consultation.
What kinds of complaints or tips can or should I submit?
The Farmer Fairness portal is designed to collect complaints and tips from farmers, ranchers, and producers concerning potential violations to the Packers and Stockyards Act, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Clayton Act, and the Federal Trade Commission Act. There are a wide variety of situations that you might experience or observe as a farmer that might be a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act. If you are a farmer who has experienced any of the examples below, you might consider submitting a complaint to the Farmer Fairness portal:
- If your meatpacker, integrator, or stockyard is unlawfully delaying or withholding payment for you or another farmer’s livestock or poultry.
- If you have experienced or observed potentially deceptive weighing practices — of either livestock, poultry, or contractually provided inputs such as feed — on the part of your meatpacker, integrator, or stockyard.
- If you believe that your integrator or meatpacker is engaging in retaliation against you for participating in an association or speaking to the media, Congress, or governmental agencies.
- If you are a contract grower and your poultry integrator has threatened to terminate your contract or no longer deliver flocks unless you complete mandatory broiler house upgrades.
- If you are a contract poultry grower who believes your integrator is engaging in deception in the provision of the inputs you require for poultry growing.
- If you are a contract poultry grower who believes you have not been provided with (upon request) sufficient information and settlement records to determine the accuracy of your pay.
- If you are a cattle producer and believe you are observing deceptive manipulation of cash negotiated markets and formula contracts for cattle.
- If you observe a meatpacker or stockyard refusing to engage in cash negotiated transactions or treating some producers differently from others, including where producers can meet terms of delivery cooperatively.
- If you believe you have observed evidence that a meatpacker, integrator, or stockyard is engaging in price-fixing.
- If you have experienced discrimination from your meatpacker, integrator, or stockyard on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status.
For further information on what might constitute a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act, you can visit the USDA’s FAQ page or read more about which entities USDA has the authority to investigate under current law, and what regulations they must comply with.
What information will I need to provide in support of my complaint?
The ability of USDA and DOJ to investigate your complaint will depend on the amount of detail you are able to provide concerning the potential competition law violations you have observed. According to USDA’s introductory article on the portal, the following details are particularly important:
- The names of companies, individuals, or organizations that are involved in your complaint.
- Your detailed description of how you believe the Packers and Stockyards Act or other federal antitrust laws have been violated by the parties about whom you are submitting a complaint (refer to the list above for examples of violations you might describe in your complaint).
- As many real-world examples of conduct that you have experienced or observed that may violate federal fair competition laws, with all relevant dates if possible, as well as any other relevant details about the violation(s).
- The names of individuals, companies, or organizations that may be harmed by the alleged violation and how they are harmed.
What confidentiality and retaliation protections are available to those who submit complaints?
To directly quote USDA and DOJ:
“The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) will protect your confidentiality to the fullest extent possible under the law and also commit to supporting relevant whistleblower protections, including newly applicable protections for criminal antitrust complainants against unlawful retaliation.”
USDA and DOJ also provide the following links which have more information concerning confidentiality protections:
- Confidentiality Policy Regarding Complainants (justice.gov)
- Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act (CAARA) | Whistleblower Protection Program (whistleblowers.gov)
What does this mean? Ultimately, the confidentiality of your complaint will depend on a number of factors, including what identifying information you provide (fully anonymous tips and complaints are permitted, as described below) and what courses of action USDA and DOJ decide to take in enforcing the law in response to tips they receive. To the fullest extent possible, your confidentiality will be maintained (as stated above), but if the USDA or DOJ decide to bring a case based on a complaint you have submitted to a court hearing or trial, you may be asked to testify as a witness.
Additionally, the operations of this complaint portal are subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. USDA and DOJ have the power to withhold identifying information of respondents whose complaints are under active investigation. USDA confirmed to RAFI-USA that all names and identifying information from Farmer Fairness portal submissions will be redacted or withheld from any response USDA makes to FOIA requests, regardless of investigation status.
Additionally, anyone who reports what they reasonably believe to be a violation of antitrust laws is entitled to the whistleblower anti-retaliation protections afforded by the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act. This law prohibits employers from “discharging, demoting, suspending, threatening, harassing, or in any other manner discriminating against” those who report suspected violations “in the terms and conditions of employment.” Anyone who believes that they are being retaliated against because of a report they have submitted or who believes they could be eligible for these whistleblower protections should seek qualified legal counsel.
Can I submit anonymously, and how will that affect the response to my complaint?
Yes, you have the option to submit a complaint either completely or partially anonymously. The portal’s form has optional fields where you may enter your first and last name, email address, city, and/or state. You may choose to fill none of these, or only identify what state you are from, provide your email address only, etc.
If you choose to make a submission without providing contact information, it is important that you provide as much detail as possible about the complaint you are submitting, since regulators will be unable to follow up with you. Important details could include details about the company or individual who may be violating the law, the location where you experienced or observed violations, and details about whether what you observed was an isolated situation or a practice that you believe to be widespread.
Regulators may be more limited in their ability to investigate your claim if they are unable to contact you, but anonymous tips are still very useful. If your tip is similar to other tips submitted about the same offender, it can help USDA and DOJ regulators have a more complete picture concerning how widespread an unfair practice might be.
If I do not receive a response, what does that mean?
If you provide an email address in your complaint, you will receive an automated response upon submitting your complaint. After that, you will only receive communication from the USDA or DOJ if they need to follow up with you on your complaint. The timeline of investigations into submitted complaints is highly dependent on the circumstances of each complaint. You may not receive further communication for months, but this does not necessarily mean that the USDA and/or DOJ have not been actively investigating your complaint in the meantime.
Are there ways that complaints are valuable even if they are not acted upon?
Yes! Even if the USDA or DOJ are not able to take action on your complaint, your tip will help regulators build a clearer understanding of what practices are troubling livestock producers. If USDA and DOJ receive a critical mass of complaints in a similar vein, this could inform where they direct further scrutiny, even if your tip does not contain details that regulators can act on in their investigations.
Why is it important that USDA and DOJ are cooperating more closely on fair competition complaints?
For years, USDA processed and investigated complaints related to the Packers and Stockyards Act on its own. However, USDA does not have the authority to bring criminal charges in the cases it investigates and specifically relies on the DOJ to enforce fair competition rules in the poultry industry. This meant that USDA would investigate complaints on their own, and then bring recommended cases to the DOJ, which would then have to engage in its own vetting, investigation, and prosecution or litigation process. Overall, this process was slow, inefficient, and allowed enforceable cases to fall through the cracks.
This new interagency effort will allow USDA and DOJ to process and investigate Packers and Stockyards Act complaints and other fair competition law violations collaboratively. Both agencies have unique skillsets to bring to the process — USDA is deeply familiar with agricultural issues in a way that DOJ is not, while DOJ specializes in investigating and enforcing the law. By working together, the two agencies can more quickly identify actionable complaints and bring a wider range of tools and skills to the process of investigating and prosecuting violations. Ultimately, the timeframe of these investigations can vary widely depending on the complexity of each individual case, but now, each case will have the full expertise of both the USDA and DOJ applied to it.
What is the Packers and Stockyards Act?
In the early 20th century, the meatpacking industry was dominated by a few massive and monopolistic corporations, much as it is today. As World War I drew to a close, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Federal Trade Commission to conduct an investigation of the industry, which found rampant market and price manipulation and unfair and fraudulent treatment of farmers and consumers. In response, Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act in 1921, which barred meatpacking corporations from:
- Engaging in unfair or deceptive practices in the marketplace.
- Giving “undue preferences” to any persons or localities in the conduct of their purchasing or business dealings.
- Engaging in activity that manipulates prices, creates monopolies, or in other ways illegally restrains fair competition.
Earlier this year, the USDA announced that it would propose three rule changes related to the Packers and Stockyards Act to strengthen its ability to enforce the protections afforded by the Act to U.S. farmers. The three rule changes that the USDA is proposing are:
- A rule placing limits on the “tournament system” used by poultry corporations to restrict the pay and power of contract poultry growers.
- A rule boosting enforcement against an updated set of unfair, deceptive, or discriminatory industry practices.
- A rule clarifying that farmers who seek to bring a lawsuit under the provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act need not prove that the corporate conduct prompting their individual grievance resulted in harm to competition in the industry overall.
These rules would provide farmers with critically needed protections against the abusive corporate practices they face right now. To learn more about the Packers and Stockyards Act, read our recent FAQ article: Eight Questions You Might Not Know You Have About the Packers and Stockyards Act
How can I join RAFI-USA in advocating for policies that protect farmers and ranchers from corporate power abuses?
We believe that our policy work should be grounded in accountable relationships with those stakeholders who are affected by our advocacy. Anyone can join our Action Network to receive food system policy updates, action alerts, social media activism guides, and training opportunities. If you are a farmer, farmworker, food system worker, or other food supply chain stakeholder, you can also register as an Action Network Stakeholder. If you work in the food system, we want to be in conversation with you to know how policies are affecting you and your community. As an Action Network Stakeholder, you will be able to tell us which food policy issues you care about and will receive special opportunities to provide us with policy feedback and, if you desire, other opportunities to engage with RAFI-USA staff and use your voice to effect change. Your privacy or confidentiality requirements will always be strictly respected, and your involvement will always be voluntary. We want to be your partner in engaging with the policies that affect your life, career, and community.
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Author Aaron Johnson is the Program Manager for the Challenging Corporate Power Program at RAFI-USA, working to end trends of concentration and extraction in the meat industry and build resilient community-rooted animal agriculture economies. Prior to joining RAFI-USA, he worked as a program designer and evaluator for several youth asset-building nonprofits in Durham, NC. Originally from Illinois, Aaron grew up spending his summers on his grandfather’s hog and dairy farm, and later working as a farmhand on his uncle’s hog farm. These formative experiences shaped Aaron’s passion for fighting for more ecologically just food systems.