By SCOTT KILMAN
ST. LOUIS -- The Obama administration will take an extensive look at concentration in U.S. agriculture as part of its increased emphasis on antitrust enforcement, a Justice Department official said Friday.
Philip J. Weiser, a telecommunications-law expert who was recently named deputy assistant attorney general, told a farmer gathering here that federal antitrust regulators are "committed to examining" the level of competition in several agribusiness sectors, such as the marketing of genetically modified seed, dairy processing and meatpacking.
Washington has often sympathized with farmers who find themselves selling their commodities to fewer and larger processors. But the Obama administration is taking a further step, with plans for a nationwide series of sessions next year for the U.S. Agriculture Department to hear competitive concerns of farmers.
Mr. Weiser's remarks are another sign the Obama administration intends to step up enforcement of antitrust laws. In May, the Justice Department's antitrust division withdrew anti-monopoly legal guidelines issued under the Bush administration and signaled closer scrutiny of some industries.
While Mr. Weiser didn't single out any agricultural companies for criticism, his 30-minute appearance came in the hometown of St. Louis crop-biotechnology titanMonsanto Co., where he addressed the annual convention of a farmers advocacy group called the Organization for Competitive Markets. Officials of the group have complained about Monsanto's dominance over genetically modified seeds.
The vast majority of the genetically modified crops grown in the U.S. farm belt contains at least one gene from Monsanto. Its success has made the company a formidable rival of DuPont Co.'s Pioneer Hi-Bred seed unit, which has accused Monsanto of being a monopolist.
DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said Friday the Wilmington, Del., concern has "funded and supported" the OCM farmer group for years, as it has many other farmer and commodity trade groups. Mr. Turner said DuPont didn't sponsor the meeting at which Mr. Weiser spoke.
Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles called DuPont's backing "extremely disappointing, because they are aligning themselves with an organization that is spreading false and misleading information about our business."