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Reno promises to look into farm industry concentration

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WASHINGTON -- Farm state senators pressing to slow the growing number of mergers in agriculture got a boost when Attorney General Janet Reno agreed to increase scrutiny of consolidation within the industry.

Reno met in private for more than an hour Tuesday with a bipartisan group of senators. She promised to increase antitrust scrutiny and recommend legislative changes if necessary, attendees said.Also, Justice Department antitrust chief Joel Klein will travel to the Midwest next month to hear more about agricultural concentration, senators said.

"It was good to hear Attorney General Reno express her deep concern Wednesday about the negative impact concentration in agribusiness may have on family farmers," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

"We're convinced part of the reason we have price collapse is concentration in agriculture," added Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., an organizer of the meeting.

Both Republican and Democratic farm state lawmakers worry about increasing mergers within the industry. Both the House and Senate have held hearings in recent months.

Unease about concentration intensified late last year after Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis, the nation's largest grain company, announced plans to buy the worldwide operations of second-ranked Continental Grain Co. The Justice Department is reviewing the proposed merger.

The announcement only increased worries in a sector reeling from a year of low prices in both commodities and livestock. Hog prices, for instance, dropped in December to as low as $8 per hundredweight, the lowest in four decades.

Those prices exacerbated concern by some that big companies were squeezing out small producers.

According to USDA figures, as of 1997 the four largest packing firms accounted for 80 percent of cattle slaughter, 54 percent of hog slaughter and 70 percent of sheep slaughter.

The Clinton administration established an interagency panel last year to look at concentration. Several agencies within the Agriculture Department are conducting their own studies.