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A federal report released this week showed American consumers paid 4.3% more in April for meat, poultry, fish and eggs. U.S. senators from farm states expressed little surprise.

But they also know that agricultural producers among their constituents haven’t been reaping a windfall.

Instead, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said, the middlemen have been cleaning up with profits as farmers and consumers get squeezed. He has joined colleagues in asking U.S. Attorney General William Barr to look into the matter.

“The free market depends on free competition, and I can tell you, Missouri farmers are sick and tired of being told there is only one price available, of being told they have to sell at this price and they’ve got no alternative,” the lawmaker told News-Press NOW on Wednesday.

In a letter to Barr, Hawley joined a bipartisan group of 18 other senators asking that the Justice Department investigate what they considered “market manipulation and coordinated behavior harmful to competition.” The attorneys general of at least 11 states have also sought an inquiry.

“The lack of competition in the meatpacking industry has resulted in a vulnerable beef supply chain, which the current national emergency has destabilized further,” said the letter, dated Tuesday.

“Since February, we have seen live cattle prices slump by more than 18%, while wholesale beef prices have increased by as much as 115% during the same period.”

The Missouri Republican spoke to what has become known as a “pricing gap” between high retail meat prices and low prices for producers.

“You’ve got cow-calf operations, where cattle are ready to go to market (but) nobody will buy them. Then in the meantime, consumers are paying more at the grocery store and in some cases facing shortages,” Hawley said. “Part of the problem here, a big part of it, is the consolidation of the packing and processing industry.”

The strain has certainly been felt in Missouri. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state had more than 2 million beef cattle in January.

“Our members are facing economic and financial destruction during the current crisis,” Marvin Dieckman, president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said last month. “One segment of the industry is making unprecedented profits while the rest of us are counting pennies.”

North Missouri Congressman Sam Graves also has had an eye on the nation’s food supply, and he sought clarification from two federal agencies over conflicting guidance on safety issues at meatpacking plants.

The letter, co-authored with fellow Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, went to the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

“Most of our meat processors have either been shuttered or running at a reduced capacity, while they try to discern what the CDC and OSHA expect of them,” their letter said.

“It’s imperative that the CDC and OSHA present clear, common-sense guidelines which enable our meat processors to protect the health and safety of their workers, while helping to maintain the availability of our country’s food supply.”

Ken Newton can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.​