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USDA is planning to revive a rulemaking process aimed at balancing power between meatpacking companies and contract growers, more widely known as the GIPSA rules. The department will revisit GIPSA regulations in its spring 2019 regulatory agenda, which sets out a list of priorities for the year, a spokesman confirmed Thursday.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue last year made a high-profile decision to withdraw an interim final rule drafted under the Obama administration that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies they contract with. The department also elected to take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

Advocates were highly critical of the moves and proclaimed that it was an early sign that Perdue would be inclined to side with agribusiness interests over farmers. These controversial rules had been a perennial and long-running issue. The secretary defended the decision as a means of avoiding litigation opposing the measures — something he saw as inevitable. But the legal battles did not end there.

Court challenge: The 2019 plan was first revealed at a Wednesday hearing in a case challenging the decision to scrap the two rules, a case brought by advocacy group the Organization for Competitive Markets and legal nonprofit Democracy Forward. A DOJ attorney arguing on behalf of USDA told a panel of judges that he was authorized to say that the department intends to place a proposed rule on its upcoming regulatory agenda — a sign, he said, that the Agriculture Department has not abandoned a congressional farm bill mandate to write regulations to aid farmers who do business with meatpacking companies.

“At that time the agenda listing would indicate when the agency intends to take the next step in the regulatory process, which in this case would probably be a notice of proposed rulemaking,” said DOJ civil attorney Weili Shaw.

Buzz is building: There’s been speculation on Capitol Hill and among industry groups that USDA is gearing up to address the issue. At this point it’s unclear what the scope of the rulemaking will be: If USDA will start from scratch in developing new rules or just work to finalize an outstanding proposed GIPSA rule that would impose changes to the tournament system.

The National Farmers Union is “eager” to work with the department when it revisits GIPSA and will encourage officials to reconsider all three rules, said Matt Perdue, NFU’s government relations representative. “We want to be careful until we have a better grasp of the 2019 rulemaking’s scope, but we’re hopeful that it will at least be a positive step forward,” he said.

Tom Super, senior vice president for communications at the National Chicken Council, said the “vast majority” of poultry farmers are “happy and thriving.”

“We are aware of this development, and should it resurface, we’re confident we’ll be on the right side of the issue, as we have [been] in the past years in Congress, at the department and in eight different federal circuit courts of appeal,” he told MA.


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