USDA will begin accepting applications for $215 million in grants and technical assistance meant to expand the nation’s meat and poultry processing capacity.

The money is part of a broader $1 billion effort by the Biden administration to strengthen meat processing amid concern about the control that the four largest meatpackers — Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS and National Beef Packing — hold in the industry. All told, those four companies control about 85% of the nation's beef processing capacity. 

The funding will be split three ways. USDA Rural Development will distribute $150 million in grants to new or existing meat processors, while another $40 million will be distributed by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for workforce development and training. Additionally, $25 million will be distributed by the Agricultural Marketing Service for technical assistance for applicants looking for meat and poultry processing resources. 

“We think that this is a very, very positive start,” Vilsack told reporters Thursday. “Our belief is that capacity is going to increase and that’s going to increase competition.”

Through the $150 million Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program administered by Rural Development, processors can apply for up to $25 million for construction, expansion of existing facilities, acquisition of equipment and other activities. According to the release, all application materials must be received by April 11, 2022.

The NIFA workforce development funding will primarily be distributed through competitive grants provided to community, junior and technical colleges for meat and poultry processing programs. A request for applications will be published in April, the release said.

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AMS will use $10 million of the $125 million earmarked for technical assistance to establish an “initial technical assistance network and lead coordinator” and the rest will go toward partnerships with organizations providing technical assistance and guidance to interested individuals. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association released statements applauding the funding.

“We asked Secretary Vilsack and USDA to provide more resources to level the playing field. Investments in new processing options and job creation are positive steps toward creating fair markets while strengthening America’s supply chain,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in the release. 

For its part, NCBA said it "appreciates the Administration’s efforts to expand and diversify processing capacity and looks forward to working with USDA to ensure proper implementation of the funds."

While Vilsack said expanding meat processing capacity is “part of the process” of creating more competition in the sector, he noted that there are still things like antitrust enforcement and labeling laws that the agency is looking into. Most recently, the USDA opened up a “Farmer Fairness” portal where producers can provide tips or complaints about behavior in livestock markets.

“I think we have a responsibility under the executive order to take a look at other aspects of the relationship between farmers and the food system,” Vilsack said. “We'll do that and from that we may learn that there are additional steps that need to take place.”

A previous version of this story reported USDA's total investment as $250 million. The actual figure is $215 million. We regret the error.

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