The Counter: Why Covid-19 plant shutdowns could make the Big Four meatpackers even more profitable

Why Covid-19 plant shutdowns could make the Big Four meatpackers even more profitable

by Joe Fassler + H. Claire Brown

05.14.2020, 2:50pm

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

For ranchers, workers, and retailers, the pandemic has been a crisis. For the meatpackers who dominate 80 percent of the beef market, it’s been a rare opportunity.

For a brief, four-day period last week, two of the Midwest’s largest beef packing plants were both shut down at the same time. Together, those Nebraska facilities—the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City and the Cargill plant in Schuyler—can process a combined 13,000 animals per day, more than 10 percent of America’s total cattle slaughter. At first glance, this turn of events seemed to be what Tyson Foods chairman John H. Tyson warned about when, in a recent, open letter to the public, he claimed “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Above, a Tyson Fresh Meats beef plant in Emporia, Kansas, as seen on Monday, April 27, 2020. According to the Emporia Gazette, 48 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have been traced to the facility.

But while plant closures create the appearance of a system in chaos, stoking anxieties about shortages and empty shelves, they don’t necessarily hurt meatpackers themselves. In fact, for the handful of large meatpackers who dominate the beef industry, closing down plants can actually increase profits. For these companies, at least so far, Covid-19 appears to be more opportunity than crisis.

That’s not to say that plant closures are economically beneficial across the board—far from it. Pandemic-related disruptions in meat processing have imperiled workers’ livelihoods, made meat more expensive in grocery stores, and have cost livestock producers millions in lost profits. But the four meatpackers who control more than 80 percent of cattle slaughter in the U.S.—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef, known collectively as the Big Four—will likely be just fine. In fact, they’re structured in a way that insulates them from the worst economic impacts of this crisis—and may emerge from it even stronger. MORE