But, Mr. Maffei said, the focus on antitrust has given the commission tools and confidence to investigate other abuses by shipping companies, now and in the future, when demand falls and companies might be tempted to try to keep their freight rates artificially high. “I think it has upped our credibility” with companies and discouraged anticompetitive behavior, he said.
Perhaps the administration’s most sustained focus, in the near term, has been on the meat industry. A report from the National Economic Council this month accused the largest meat processing companies of price gouging to pad profits. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for meat were up 16 percent in November compared with the same month last year.
“We’re seeing the dominant meat processors use their market power to extract bigger and bigger profit margins for themselves,” the report said. “Businesses that face meaningful competition can’t do that, because they would lose business to a competitor that did not hike its margins.”
The North American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, denied the allegations and accused the Biden administration of cherry-picking economic data. It said that the White House was overlooking the record levels of demand for beef, pork and poultry.
“The White House Economic Council is again demonstrating its ignorance of agricultural economics and the fundamentals of supply and demand,” said Julie Anna Potts, the Meat Institute’s president.
The clash between Mr. Biden and “Big Meat” has put the spotlight on Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, who held the same position for the eight years of the Obama administration. Some agricultural groups criticized Mr. Vilsack’s nomination because he had failed to mount an antitrust effort during his previous tenure and instead oversaw an era of consolidation in the farm sector, including the merger of Monsanto and Bayer. After leaving the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack became a dairy industry lobbyist.
Mr. Vilsack is now responsible for developing new rules to strengthen a law, the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, that is intended to protect farmers from anticompetitive practices in the meat industry and to promote ways for consumers to buy directly from farmers. But the rules, which were assigned as part of Mr. Biden’s July executive order on competition, have yet to be announced. That has revived suggestions that Mr. Vilsack is beholden to big agricultural corporations.