On August 5, the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that they will hold joint public workshops starting in early 2010, whose purpose is to explore (a) competition issues affecting the agriculture industry in the 21st century and (b) the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in that industry.

The announcement reflects the focus that the new Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, Christine Varney, is placing on competition issues affecting agriculture.

Goals: The workshops are intended to provide an opportunity for farmers, ranchers, consumer groups, processors, the agribusinesses, and other interested parties to provide examples of potentially anticompetitive conduct. They aim "to promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to the appropriate legal and economic analyses of these issues, as well as to listen to and learn from parties with real-world experience in the agriculture sector."

Areas of Interest: The agencies' announcement, as well as an August 7 presentation by Philip J. Weiser, Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Antitrust Division, indicate that the following areas are of interest to the agencies:

  1. Evaluating the state and nature of competition in a range of agricultural markets;
  2. The impact of vertical integration;
  3. Concerns about "buyer power";
  4. Relevant regulatory regimes (including the Packers and Stockyards Act); and
  5. Questions about the nature of transparency in the marketplace.

Mr. Weiser emphasized that these are not the only areas that will be considered. He further identified "particular market segments" that "will receive attention" in the agencies' evaluation of competition in agricultural markets: the seed industry, the dairy market, and livestock markets.

It is evident that the focus on "agriculture" encompasses a wide range of business activities involving agricultural activities and products.

The press release included an invitation for input on further topics that might be discussed at the workshops, including "the impact of agriculture concentration on food costs, the effect of agricultural regulatory statutes or other applicable laws and programs on competition, issues relating to patent and intellectual property affecting agricultural marketing or production, and market practices such as price spreads, forward contracts, packer ownership of livestock before slaughter, market transparency, and increasing retailer concentration."

Schedule; Opportunity for Comments: The first workshop will be held in early 2010. Some workshops may be held in Washington, D.C.; others will be held regionally. The agencies are soliciting public comments from lawyers, economists, agribusinesses, consumer groups, academics, agricultural producers, agricultural cooperatives, and other interested parties. Additional information about the date, time and location of the workshops will be provided at a later date. Interested parties should submit written comments in both paper and electronic form to the Department of Justice no later than Dec. 31, 2009. All comments received will be publicly posted.