Grassley, Farm Bureau ask Pence for meat-price investigation

Vice President Mike Pence addresses a roundtable on the food chain in West Des Moines Friday. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and the head of the American Farm Bureau Federation appealed directly to Vice President Mike Pence in Iowa Friday to support a Justice Department investigation of possible price-fixing in the meat industry. 

Pence, head of the federal coronavirus task force, was in West Des Moines in part for a roundtable with Iowa’s senators, national agricultural leaders and Hy-Vee chairman, president and CEO Randy Edeker, who led the discussion of the food supply chain as chairman of the Food Industry Association.

He appeared nearly two hours late after several people who had recent contact with an aide who had tested positive for COVID-19 had to be removed from Pence’s plane. CNN reported the aide was Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, who was not on the plane.

Members of various ag companies on Pence’s panel in Des Moines walked on stage wearing masks, then removed them. Pence was not wearing one when he arrived at his seat.

Grassley said farmers want the Justice Department to look into why prices are low for cattle but high when consumers get to grocery store meat departments. President Trump this week said he supports an investigation. 

“You can’t appreciate enough the economic distress that comes with these low prices and the emotional distress,” Grassley said. “They want to know why they are losing hundreds of dollars on cattle but spending more for beef at the market.

“Things aren’t very good right now on the farm,” Grassley said. “We don’t want to be worrying about being nine meals away from rioting,” he added, citing an old saying about farm unrest.

Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation president, also called for the investigation.

“We have serious concerns about market manipulation,” Duvall told Pence and other panelists.. “We are frustrated by rock-bottom prices we are paid and sky-high prices some of us are paying at the market.

“The farmers and ranchers are coming unhinged when they see that because they are losing their farms,” Duvall added. At the same time, federal pandemic aid “won’t come close” to covering farmers’ losses from pandemic disruptions and the trade war with China. 

Duvall said farmers are worried that the Phase One pact with China won’t result in the promised $40 billion in purchases of U.S. farm commodities. 

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the pandemic has enlightened many about the fact that food doesn’t originate at the stores. “We are in a great awakening about where our food comes from,” she said. 

She called for the creation of a White House Office of Food Supply Chain to help build on what she sees as a highly successful effort to keep food in the stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In an interview after the event, Edeker said the prices are rising because of short supply due to plant closures caused by the pandemic.

“I don’t have that answer,” Edeker said of high prices for beef and low prices for corn fed to cattle. “We negotiate a price from our suppliers. If anything, whenever beef prices or pork prices get high, our margins go down. Always remember, our customers are farmers.” 

When asked why beef prices had not dropped along with corn prices over the past several years, Edeker said Hy-Vee has kept its same margin on meat sales. The prices are rising earlier in the chain, he said. 

Pence appeared at Hy-Vee headquarters in West Des Moines. He also met with religious leaders about how to open churches safely. 

Tyson announced Friday that its plants in Perry and Waterloo, and three spread across three other states, will resume full production next week. 

Pence repeatedly praised Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Grassley and Ernst, meatpackers and grocers for their efforts to keep stores open and stocked. 

“You’ve done an incredible job of keeping food on the table in the midst of a national crisis,” Pence said. “It may well turn out to be your finest hour, a time when the industry stepped up and met the moment. At at some personal risk to themselves, whether it be people working in the main processing plant or whether it be people running cash registers, or people traveling around the country, driving trucks and working in warehouses.” 

Religious leaders tell Pence they haven’t reopened yet

Most of the Iowa faith leaders who met Friday with Vice President Mike Pence indicated they had not yet reopened their churches or synagogues for in-person worship services, despite relaxed COVID-19 mitigation measures allowing them to gather.

Pence was scheduled to meet at Westkirk Presbyterian Church in Urbandale with six Christian church leaders, a rabbi and two members of The Family Leader, an evangelical advocacy group. According to a pool report, about 20 people were “spread thinly” among the pews and only a few were wearing face masks.

“I must say, this is the first time I’ve been back in church … for some time,” Pence said, to laughter from the audience.

Pence said he and President Trump have been “inspired” by the way people have faith have continued their efforts to reach out to the vulnerable under difficult conditions. “Even though your pews have been empty, your work has been full and I couldn’t be more grateful to you,” he said.

Pastor Michael Mudlaff of Westkirk said his congregation would begin in-person worship services May 31, starting with a single service. To begin with, he said, worshipers will be required to wear masks.

“Nobody likes it, however. This kind of restriction is not conducive to relationships along with singing or responding in worship,” he said, adding he hopes mask-wearing will soon become optional.

Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun said he believes more testing and antibody testing is probably needed before there is a return to normal worship.

“We are pretty much in a position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship. It’s inadvisable at the moment, especially with rising case counts in the communities in which most of our congregations are across the state,” Kaufman said.

“And the primary population that attends worship in our congregations is significantly the vulnerable population tends to be people who were 70-plus, it tends to be people who are in need of healing, as they’re facing healing medical problems themselves or having recently recovered from them.”

Monte Knudsen, pastor of Faith Christian Outreach Church, said his church has been running a drive-in service. It will open May 17 for in-person worship but “family style,” which he said means families will be kept in groups, isolated from others. Children won’t gather in Sunday school until May 31.

Pence wrapped up with a promise to protect religious liberty.

“The Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis and I promise you we are going to continue to stand by the religious liberty of every American… until this is over and then beyond,” he said.