With ground beef prices skyrocketing due to COVID-19 plant shutdowns, even Republicans are starting to realize that when 85% of the beef market is controlled by four giant agribusiness processor corporations, collusion is inevitable, and it's the kind of collusion that will start costing Midwest Republicans their jobs in five months and change.
Supermarket customers are paying more for beef than they have in decades during the coronavirus pandemic. But at the same time, the companies that process the meat for sale are paying farmers and ranchers staggeringly low prices for cattle.
Now, the Agriculture Department and prosecutors are investigating whether the meatpacking industry is fixing or manipulating prices.
The Department of Justice is looking at the four largest U.S. meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — which collectively control about 85 percent of the U.S. market for the slaughter and packaging of beef, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. The USDA is also investigating the beef price fluctuations, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has confirmed.
Meatpackers say beef prices have spiked during the pandemic because plants are running at lower capacity as workers fall ill, so less meat is making its way to shelves. The four companies didn’t respond to requests for comment about the probes.
But the coronavirus crisis is highlighting how the American system of getting meat to the table favors a handful of giant companies despite a century of government efforts to decentralize it. And it’s sparking new calls for changes in meatpacking.
“It’s evidence that something isn’t right in the industry,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has spoken out against mergers in the agriculture industry. In April, Grassley requested federal investigations into market manipulation and unfair practices within the cattle industry. So have 19 other senators and 11 state attorneys general.
The average retail price for fresh beef in April was $6.22 per pound — 26 cents higher per pound than it was the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, at the end of April, the average price for a steer was below $100 per hundred pounds; the five-year average for that same week was about $135 per hundred pounds, according to USDA’s weekly summary.
Ed Greiman, general manager of Upper Iowa Beef who formerly headed the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, attributed the consumer price increase to plants running at lower capacity. At the same time, farmers and ranchers desperate to offload their cattle as they reach optimal weight for slaughter are cutting prices so they won’t have to kill the animals without selling them.
“I’m running at half speed,” Greiman said at an event hosted by the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association. “Cattle are backing up because we can’t run our plants fast enough. Nothing is functioning properly. We need to be careful not to put blame on any one thing or part of the industry because we can’t get these plants going."
The industry has long been a focus for government antitrust enforcement.
Exactly 100 years ago, after years of litigation, the five biggest U.S. meatpackers — which were responsible for 82 percent of the beef market — agreed to an antitrust settlement with the Justice Department that helped break their control over the industry.
The Justice Department’s efforts to reduce concentration in meatpacking led to decades of competition. By 1980, the top four firms controlled only 36 percent of cattle slaughters in the U.S., according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
But during the next 10 years, meatpacking experienced a huge wave of deals, enough that the USDA dubbed the time “merger mania.” By 1988, the new four biggest companies again controlled 70 percent of the beef meatpacking market.
“There’s greater concentration in meatpacking now” than in 1921, said Thomas Horton, an antitrust professor at the University of South Dakota, who previously worked at the Justice Department. The first antitrust laws were “passed to take care of the Big Five. Now we have the Big Four. We’re going backwards.”
I expect this probe to move pretty quickly, because if voters are paying $7, $8, $10 or more a pound for ground beef heading into Election Day, Republicans are going to be the ones going into the grinder.
As I've said, food shortages are to be expected, but the big meat processor corporations have been getting away with collusion for years now. It looks like that may be coming to a swift end, if only to save the hides of Republican lawmakers.
Side note: when plant-based meat products are less expensive than actual meat, these big processors are going to be in real trouble anyway.