BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison have signed onto a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr calling for a federal investigation of the meatpacking industry.

The 11 state attorneys general who joined the cause say there are signs that the top four U.S. beef processors, which control about 80% of the market, are colluding to artificially raise prices. Because of antitrust laws, companies in any industry cannot work together to drive up prices.

The four industry-dominating companies, while not named in the letter to Barr, are Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS USA and National Beef Packing.

The attorneys general acknowledge that there have long been concerns about price fixing in the industry, but they argue the high price of packaged beef and rapidly dropping price of live cattle show that meatpacking companies are using their ability to control the market to take advantage of ranchers and consumers during the coronavirus pandemic. Live cattle has lost about 30% of its value since the beginning of the year.

"With such high concentration and the threat of increasing (industry) consolidation, we have concerns that beef processors are well positioned to coordinate their behavior and create a bottleneck in the cattle industry — to the detriment of ranchers and consumers alike," the letter said.

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Companies found guilty of violating antitrust laws could face massive fines.

Stenehjem and Ellison are joined on the letter by the attorneys general from Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.