The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Don Stull is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas.
Before COVID-19, most Kansans gave little thought to meat, except as they cruised the grocery aisles looking for the daily special and deciding what to have for dinner. But by the end of April, thousands of meat and poultry workers had been infected and 20 had died. Scenes of empty meat counters accompanied reports that Costco and Kroeger were rationing meat in some stores, and Wendy’s was taking hamburgers off menus in some outlets.
On April 28, John Tyson, board chairman of Tyson Foods, took out full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to say the pandemic was breaking the food supply chain. The next day, President Trump issued an executive order classifying meat and poultry plants as critical infrastructure and directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “ensure America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible.”
Although COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to mount (to date, more than 42,000 meat and poultry workers have tested positive and more than 200 have died), meat and poultry production is approaching pre-pandemic levels. But the price shoppers pay in the checkout line is not. According to the National Farmers Union, beef prices are a whopping 25% higher than last year.
Sadly, farmers and ranchers have not shared in those increases. In fact, the prices paid to farmers averaged 4.8% less than last year. And livestock prices in May were down 17% from a year earlier. Unless farmers and ranchers receive additional federal aid, farm income is projected to fall by 12% this year.
What John Tyson didn’t say was that his company, and a handful of others — JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, National Beef — are central to the problems with our food system.
Four corporations account for 85% of beef processed in the United States, 74% of pork, and 60% of poultry. Open and competitive markets for chickens and hogs are no more, as farmers are trapped in contracts that bind them to one company and dictate how they run their operations. The cash market for cattle is all but gone, too.
The problems created by corporate concentration are especially pronounced in the beef industry. Only about 50 plants slaughter and process 98% of all U.S. beef. In fact, 14 packing plants, each slaughtering more than one million animals a year, account for most of the nation’s beef slaughter. And five of these plants constitute beefpacking’s golden triangle — located in the southwest Kansas towns of Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal.
Eaters would seem to have unlimited choice as they cruise the supermarket aisles, but those myriad choices are presented to them by a few companies, who use monopolistic practices to expand their product lines and increase their market share. Take Tyson, for example. Not only is it one of the big four in chicken, pork and beef processing, its portfolio also includes Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park, Mexican Original, Nature Raised Farms, Open Prairie Natural Meats and Sara Lee.
As agricultural and food-processing companies have steadily consolidated through mergers and buyouts, independent producers and regional processors have dwindled. Since 1980, four out of 10 farmers who raise cattle and nine out of 10 who raise hogs have gone out of business.
It’s the same story in Kansas’s dairy industry. In 1980, Kansas had 5,600 dairy operations; only 270 remain. Of those, just 29 western Kansas operations produce 85% of the state’s milk.
Such concentration and corporate control of American agriculture and food processing result in lower prices for farmers and higher prices for eaters.
Over the last decade, retail meat prices have risen more than 40%. But during that same time, gross farm income for small- and medium-sized hog and cattle farmers fell by 32%.
When retail meat prices soared in the wake of COVID-19, many shoppers sought alternative sources of meat from farmers, ranchers and small processors, but they quickly found such providers were too few and could not keep up with demand. After all, they had been largely eliminated by the corporate giants that have long dominated our food system.
Sadly, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to modern-day agribusiness trusts and the monopolistic practices they use to control our food and the farmers and ranchers who produce it.
The meat and poultry industry has been largely successful in blocking meaningful efforts of unions, farmers, politicians, and activists to reform it. The question is, will the public finally demand a more sustainable and equitable food system going forward?
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