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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Consumers have beef with packers

It’s hard to feel sorry for JBS Foods, hit last weekend by an anonymous ransomware attack. One might call it karma. The four multinational meatpackers controlling over 80% of the world market have been holding consumers hostage for years, and JBS is the largest of the four.

Brazil-based JBS usually keeps a low profile behind brands with familiar names, including Pilgrim’s Pride, Swift, USA Pork and USA Beef. Without common sense labeling telling consumers where their meat is born and raised, branding is freely used to leave the impression American consumers are buying American products. The multinationals support anonymity when it suits their own purposes and have used their lobbying power to block country of origin labeling (COOL) legislation that would provide consumers with accurate information.

When JBS shut down operations in North America and Australia after the Memorial Day weekend attack on its IT systems, the cattle industry reacted and futures markets fell. “Beef production dropped by 20% compared to last week and that’s about how much of the market JBS controls in the United States,” according to Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a cattle producer controlled organization. While JBS maintains it is bringing operations back online this week, the prospect of a long shut down was a worry for producers. It also sparked speculation on shortages at the supermarket and rising consumer prices.

Bullard has tracked USDA’s meat price spreadsheets for years. According to Bullard, consumer beef prices rose 20% during the four years leading up to 2015 at the same time the share of the consumer beef dollar going to producers plummeted 29%. It’s an ongoing pattern of disconnection between supply and demand in a broken market. “Consumers are being told there’s a shortage and tight supply and that’s why they pay high prices, at the same time producers are being told there is no demand for their cattle. The packers are exploiting both ends of the supply chain.”

The North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing the interests of JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef, in a recent letter to Congress admitted to controlling the purchase of 85% of all fed cattle raised in the US. The term “fed cattle” refers to cattle raised specifically for the beef market as tracked by USDA and does not include “cows, both dairy and beef, and some bulls,” according to NAMI. It’s an inside industry distinction that makes little difference to consumers, but it lets NAMI massage the statistics to conclude “the Big Four packers … comprise about 70% of total US beef production.”

Seventy percent or 85% still provides a lot of power. And buys a lot of lobbying on both sides of the aisle. The NAMI letter and the rebuttal are both available on the R-CALF USA website.

While consumers are price takers at the supermarket, cattle producers are price takers at the mercy of the packers. One year ago, the Department of Justice initiated an antitrust investigation into how the “Big Four” have exercised their near monopsony power over prices paid for cattle. Subpoenas were issued in May 2020 and now members of Congress are pressing for the report.

A coalition of producer organizations including R-CALF USA are pushing back with the help of Sen. Michael Rounds, R-S.D., and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. A request dubbed the “Rounds-Smith letter” was sent to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last week. The letter has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, with 28 signers from 23 states. “Many of the signers are not from traditional cattle states but consumer-oriented states. We have expanded the scope of people who are keenly interested in these issues and in actually making the reforms needed to restore competition in the cattle and beef markets,” said Bullard.

None of the Washington congressional delegation had signed on in support of the Rounds-Smith letter as of June 2.

For those unaware or skeptical of the science supporting regenerative grazing and the role of cattle in reducing atmospheric carbon, fewer cattle might sound like a good idea. That’s a debate for another column. But vegans and vegetarians also have an interest in holding the Big Four accountable. Do you know who controls alternative protein products? According to an April 19, 2021, report on the NASDAQ website, Tyson Foods is working on its veggie burger. And JBS just purchased Vivera, a Dutch company controlling 60% of Europe’s plant-based protein market.

But there’s nothing to worry about, right? The Big Four would never take advantage of market power to hike consumer prices, right? This issue doesn’t just hit backyard barbecuers flipping hamburgers and steaks on a summertime grill. It hits anyone who eats.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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