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USDA, states join forces to fight grocery ‘price gouging’

Critics in U.S. Chamber of Commerce, House GOP see government overreach

A federal alliance with state attorneys general announced Wednesday would target anticompetitive markets and industries that drive up food prices.
A federal alliance with state attorneys general announced Wednesday would target anticompetitive markets and industries that drive up food prices. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Agriculture Department will work with attorneys general in 31 states and the District of Columbia to address anticompetitive markets in agriculture and related industries that result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers and producers, the Biden administration said Wednesday.

The Agriculture Competition Partnership is one of several announcements the White House Competition Council made as the administration marks the second anniversary of an executive order that President Joe Biden issued on July 9, 2021. The states and the USDA will carry out the partnership through the Center for State Enforcement of Antitrust and Consumer Protection Laws, a nonpartisan organization.

Under the partnership, the Agriculture Department will offer expertise and funding for state attorneys general to take on complex cases and to aid research and academic work that could be used to lay the foundation for future cases. The participating attorneys general include Democrats and Republicans.

A senior official said the work by the Agriculture Department and state law enforcement officials will “ramp up enforcement of antitrust and consumer protection laws that will help stop conduct like price fixing or price gouging in grocery retail markets, meat and poultry processing and other agricultural markets.” 

The announcements from the Agriculture Department, Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development come amid opposition from congressional Republicans and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The critics say a range of regulations proposed by the White House and its agencies are overreaching and potentially hindering economic growth.

“By placing necessary resources where they are needed most and helping states identify and address anticompetitive and anti-consumer behavior, in partnership with federal authorities, through these cooperative agreements we can ensure a more robust and competitive agricultural sector,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

In a briefing call, administration officials said the announcements represent varying degrees of fine-tuning steps to increase transparency in areas such as rental housing fees for the general public. As a condition of the call, participants can be identified only as senior administration officials.

One official said critics missed the mark with opposition to steps such as the Agriculture Department’s providing funds to smaller and independent meat and poultry processors to expand or build new facilities in rural areas. In June, the department announced $115.4 million in grants to increase regional processing capacity and competition.

“By investing in competition, we’re also investing in small businesses,” the official said.  

House Republican appropriators underscored their disapproval of one area of the Agriculture Department’s competition agenda with a policy rider in the fiscal 2024 Agriculture spending bill that would block the use of funds to finalize pending rules championed by the administration and Vilsack as giving farmers and ranchers a stronger negotiating hand with meatpackers and poultry companies.

The policy language would prohibit the department from advancing similar new proposals under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.

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