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Many of the issues in rural America have to do with competition — as in, there’s not enough of it. Hog farmers and poultry raisers worked under contract for a few large companies. Seeds are provided by a handful of businesses. Retail sales are concentrated. There are constant efforts to move the sale of cattle out of the auction barn where a fair price can be determined. The Obama Administration’s top antitrust official, Christine A. Varney (above), is taking aim at some of these areas, according to Sunday’s New York Times. Stephen Labaton reports, “At the request of some lawmakers, notably Senator Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, Ms. Varney is examining whether small agricultural operations are being hampered unfairly by large food processors, particularly in the milk industry, congressional aides said.”

Food processing isn’t the only area Varney is exploring. She is looking at complaints from phone companies that cable providers are blocking them from buying sports programs that the cable channels produce. She is also examining why generic drugs aren’t more readily available. “It is a major policy reversal from the Bush administration, which did not prosecute cases in which some dominant companies engaged in potentially anticompetitive behavior, often because those officials maintained such behavior was not harmful to consumers,” Labaton writes.

“In some cases, though, the new approach is being opposed by administration officials,” Labaton continues. “Some fear that the crackdown is coming at a bad time, as corporate America reels from the recession. Other officials embrace the Bush administration’s view that larger companies and industry alliances can provide consumer benefits by making their businesses more efficient.”

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