Investigate Midwest: Big Meat lobbyists are bullying lawmakers into submission

Big Meat lobbyists are bullying lawmakers into submission

In his latest column, Dave Dickey takes on Big Beef’s big players — Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef — and their shenanigans to protect their bottom lines.

by Dave Dickey June 1, 2023

Ground beef meat products at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

When just four corporations — Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and National Beef — account for 85% of all U.S. grain-fattened cattle that are made into steaks, beef roasts and other cuts of meat for consumers, it doesn’t take much imagination to think Big Beef has little tolerance for anything reducing profits.

One for all and all for one!

As it turns out, imagination is reality.

That’s because Big Beef’s mouthpieces (aka lobbyists) are working around the clock to kill reasonable bills and any plans that might upset the status quo gravy train.

Most recently are Big Beef’s attacks on the proposed Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act Act (S.557 and H.R.1249).

Current law prohibits checkoff funds intended to promote the beef industry generically to specifically be used for policy or lobbying. But the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — the beef checkoff’s largest contractor — time and again has ignored the law while claiming an impenetrable firewall exists between the trade association’s lobbying and checkoff work.

Yeah … not.

The OFF Act is intended to put an end to NCBA lobbying shenanigans specifically by prohibiting:

“…boards established to carry out a checkoff program or a USDA order issued under a checkoff program from entering into a contract or agreement to carry out program activities with a party that engages in activities to influence any government policy or action that relates to agriculture.

A board or its employees or agents acting in their official capacity may not engage in any

  • act that may involve a conflict of interest;
  • anticompetitive activity;
  • unfair or deceptive act or practice; or
  • act that may be disparaging to, or in any way negatively portray, another agricultural commodity or product.”

Laughably, Big Beef lobbyists are claiming the OFF Act will give control of the cattle industry to animal rights activists. Exactly how that happens is a mystery.

But that’s not all Big Beef lobbyists are trying to squash.

Earlier this year Big Meat lobbyists cried crocodile tears over the proposed American Beef Labeling Act.

Tom Vilsack

This bill would re-add “beef” and “ground beef” to the 2002 Mandatory Country of Origin labeling law and require both domestic and foreign beef produced for U.S. consumption to include where it was born, raised and harvested.

Big Beef is claiming that the World Trade Organization has already ruled that mandatory country of origin labeling of U.S. beef is illegal and thus new efforts are a waste of time and taxpayer resources. In 2015, the WTO’s appellate body ruled MCOOL violated current trade obligations and was burdensome on meat packers and producers.

That view still has traction in Congress; probably enough to prevent passage even though MCOOL is just fine for lamb, chicken, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. So what’s the beef, Big Beef?

Big Beef also wants to continue to legally deceive U.S. consumers on beef labeling.

Under current law Big Beef can happily slap Product of USA labels on beef it knows was not born, raised, slaughtered, and processed in the good ol’ USA. And it’s legal because of loopholes in the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book.

Big Beef also killed momentum for the 50-14 Spot Market Protection bill, which would have restored competition in the live cattle market that sets beef prices. Big Beef lobbyists argued feedlots would go out of business if they had to compete directly with farmers and ranchers.

That is laughable.

And there’s the deal cut between EPA and Big Meat back in 2005 that shielded thousands of concentrated animal feeding operations from fines while EPA developed a reliable method to measure manure emissions. For those of you who like simple math, that was 18 years ago and still no tools in sight. The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General points at EPA incompetency while environmental advocates blame Big Meat lobbyists for the slowdown. It’s likely a mixture of both.

Getting the idea? Big Beef’s fine-tuned lobbying machine is doing just fine keeping industry interests in check.

If you’re a representative or senator in a major beef producing state, you are just flat out not likely to oppose Big Beef interests. Even the administration can find doing the right and ethical thing difficult when it comes to Big Beef.

Last summer, Carolyn Maloney, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent the USDA secretary a letter reasonably requesting the federal government cease awarding contracts to JBS USA, a company embroiled in bribery, price fixing and fraud.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack replied to Maloney emphasizing that because JBS USA has so few competitors — essentially Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef — that:

“Removing a firm from government-wide procurement would potentially impair competitive choice for the taxpayer in securing affordable food for the range of needs that the government must provide for, from school lunches to meals for our soldiers.”

Let me translate. Because JBS USA is part of the Big Four Beef quartet, the feds and Vilsack feel obligated to offer sweet deals no matter how egregious the company’s behavior:

“We take particularly seriously a pattern or practice of legal violations or disregard for cooperation with law enforcement authorities and note the possibility of a range of stepped-up compliance mechanisms should those be necessary to ensure trust going forward.”

The “possibility?”

That’s the problem in a nutshell. There hasn’t been enough appetite to take on Big Beef and its lobbyists. And Big Beef knows it.

Type of work:

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Dave Dickey Columnist


David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor… More by Dave Dickey