May 6, 2020 12:36 PM
Small butcher plant worker ( David Sommerstein/NPR )
The opinions expressed in the following commentary are those of Joaquin Contente, president of California Farmers Union, Hanford, CA.
In her April 27th commentary “We Need More Small Plants,” Kate Miller tells a “campfire story about a guy who buys a beef plant,” blaming the failure of independent plants on ineptitude.
But she has it all wrong.
The closure of 90 percent of American meat plants over the last 50 years isn’t due to a lack of knowledge or a failure to reinvest in facilities – it’s due to decades of lax antitrust enforcement.
This isn’t the first time the meat industry has had a problem with consolidation. When just five major meat packers controlled the market 100 years ago, Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act to “assure fair competition and fair trade practices, to safeguard farmers and ranchers…to protect consumers…and to protect members of the livestock, meat, and poultry industries from unfair, deceptive, unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices.”
Joaquin Contente, president of California Farmers Union
For a while, the Packers and Stockyards Act worked, establishing competition in the meat industry. But when the government eased up on enforcement, corporate raiders bought up smaller plants, made their money, and then closed them. The consequences have been significant – when so few companies, many foreign owned, control 85 percent of the beef market, they have the market power to pay farmers less and charge consumers more.
The pandemic has underscored why this is such a big problem. Because there are so few meatpacking plants left – just 50 process 98 percent of America’s meat supply – the closure of more than a dozen following outbreaks among workers has rattled the whole food chain. Consumers are already seeing higher prices and meat shortages. Without a market to sell livestock into, farmers are hemorrhaging money. If this continues, many might not be able to survive through the end of the year.
The solution to all of these problems? More small- and medium-sized meat plants. A more diverse, competitive food system is safer and more resilient, now and in the future.
We can work together to make that happen by demanding that antitrust laws are enforced, which would enable a greater number of smaller plants to compete in the marketplace.
We can demand the reinstatement of mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling of meat, something that both farmers and consumer overwhelmingly support. Years ago, farmers and consumers came together to pass mandatory labeling of meat and it was in effect until a kangaroo court at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which included at least one trade lawyer representing the beef industry, ruled against it. The multinational meat packers are the only ones who benefit from the confusion about where meat comes from at the grocery store.
We can call for reform of our campaign finance system so that donations from large meat plants no longer influence government oversight of our country’s food supply.
Every campfire story has an ending. For this story, we have the power to write an ending that ensures our food system works better for farmers and consumers.