More than money: The monopoly on meat
Corporate monopolies exercise a lot of power in U.S. markets.
They dominate many industries, including beef.
“You have cattle ranchers going broke while consumers are paying all-time record prices for beef,” Bill Bullard, head of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, says.
In ways you see, and don’t:
“It’s failed consumers on one end of the supply chain, and it’s failed the American family farmer and rancher on the other,” Bullard says.
Today, On Point: A discussion of monopolies and meat processing kicks off our special series More than money: The cost of monopolies in America.
Bill Bullard, head of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, an advocacy group. His organization is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accuses meatpackers of manipulating prices.
Claire Kelloway, program manager for fair food and farming systems at the Open Markets Institute, a nonprofit anti-monopoly organization. (@clairekelloway)
Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. Author of the Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America and editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America.(@JackBeattyNPR)
Jeanie Alderson, fourth generation rancher from Birney, Montana. Member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group.
Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a Washington lobbying group representing packers and processors.
Aaron Metz, fourth generation rancher from the Badlands of Western North Dakota.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: There’s a small Montana town that’s as small as it gets, population 110 to be exact. No stores or restaurants. The only business in town is the Post Office. But, it does have lots of grassland. And …
JEANIE ALDERSON: In a state like Montana, there’s more cows than people.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeanie Alderson is a fourth generation rancher. She grew up in that tiny town, Birney, in southeastern Montana.
ALDERSON: We’re on our ranch today. It’s at the confluence of two creeks, which is really special, that means we’ve got water. This is the high northern plains kind of terrain. Wonderful grasslands, but it’s dry.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeanie’s family has owned the Bones Brothers Ranch since 1889. More than 130 years.
ALDERSON: Ranching is what this community is, and it’s who we are.
CHAKRABARTI: She’s wondering, though, how long will it stay that way? Ever since Jeanie took over the family business, she’s seen things change, and rapidly.
ALDERSON: You know, when I was growing up, there were two little grocery stores in this town, and now all you can buy in Birney is a stamp.
CHAKRBARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Ranchers like Jeanie are so integral to the western United States, they’re indistinguishable from it. But there are half a million fewer ranching families now. That’s 40% less than there were in the 1980s. That’s partly because of a long-term change mostly hidden from public view in the structure of the beef industry. To consumers, it looks like a pretty open market. A lot of ranchers, selling a lot of beef, that ends up in a lot of grocery stores.
But the beef industry is really more like an hourglass. Between the ranchers and the shoppers there’s an iron fist consolidating, and squeezing the meatpacking market down to a virtual monopoly. That heavily influences prices paid to ranchers for their cattle. So more than ever, ranchers like Jeanie Alderson are having a hard time hanging on.
ALDERSON: Agriculture has always been the hub, the center, the heart. And when you look around these little communities and you see all the boarded up businesses, you realize that when ranching and farming are on hard times, it’s hard on all the other businesses and all the communities around that.
CHAKRABARTI: All the communities around that. Well, for more than 50 years, American antitrust regulation has followed a basic premise: Are consumers being harmed? But now there’s a new sheriff in town, and her name is Lina Khan. She’s the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and Khan wants to rethink the entire definition of harm when it comes to monopolies.
LINA KHAN [Tape]: Monopolies are bad, not simply because they threaten to, you know, lead to higher consumer prices or even necessarily undermine productivity and growth. But monopolies are bad because they’re bad for democracy.
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re launching a weeklong special series called More than money: The cost of monopolies in America. And we’ll be exploring the idea of whether it’s time to look more closely at what monopolistic consolidation does, not only to the markets those companies are in, but to the societies they’re into.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeanie Alderson runs the Bones Brothers Ranch with her husband, her two teenage sons and her 91-year-old father. He raised the cattle before her.
ALDERSON: Well, we’re feeding a bunch of our wagyu beef cattle. And we feed them in the wintertime, and they’re out on pastures all summer. And today we bought them some hay. They’re happy to have it.
ALDERSON: In many ways, I belong to this place kind of more than it belongs to me, and that’s something that’s sort of hard to explain. But I feel this immense responsibility to care for it, and to hold it together.
ALDERSON: So we love this. This is our solar well, water our cattle and get drinking water sometimes if we lose power at the ranch.
You know, when I was growing up, I don’t remember thinking about, Are we going to get a big enough sale to pay all our bills and stay in business? That is looming more and more.
CHAKRABARTI: There are four major corporations in the American meatpacking industry. Tyson Foods, Cargill and two owned by Brazilian corporations, National Beef Packing Company and JBS. In 1977, the Big Four, as they’re commonly called, owned just 25% of the market. Many mergers later, the Big Four now control 85% of all meat packing in America. Cattle beef are a $67 billion industry in the U.S.
Cattle ranchers used to receive 62 cents for every consumer dollar spent on beef. Today, that’s dropped to less than 37 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile, the Big Four have tripled profits in the past two years alone.
ALDERSON: I’m just using a pitchfork to throw a little bit of hay for these horses. They’ll mostly graze, but I just give them a little extra.
CHAKRABARTI: By controlling almost the entire meatpacking market, the Big Four exercised enormous leverage over prices they’ll pay for livestock.
ALDERSON: We wait for a middleman to come and say, OK, I’m going to give you such and such price for your calves. It’s not like we get to set the price. We are given a price and we have to take it or leave it. It’s stressful because we know how much we have to make on a calf. But we also, because of where we live in the wintertime, we could say, OK, we can’t get a good enough price. We’ll just keep them and we’ll sell them. The next year, we’ll sell them as yearlings. But then we have all these costs of feeding them all through the winter. And who knows if the market’s going to be any better the next year? We’re really trapped in this system. We don’t have another place to go. That’s the other thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand. We don’t have another market to go to.
CHAKRABARTI: There was a time and a place where cattle markets were much more competitive, dynamic and transparent: At the public auction.
Today, less than 30% of cattle sales passed through the typical cash auction. The rest go through contract sales with the Big Four meatpackers. Jeanie Alderson says that means the company’s lock up 70% of cattle sold at prices they impose, and they do so out of public view.
ALDERSON: There’s this huge amount of wealth that’s being extracted from the cattle that we’re raising, and they’re kind of being stolen from us. And we’re not asking for a lot. We’re really just asking for a fair and open and transparent market, some competition in the market and for some laws to be enforced.
CHAKRABARTI: And what if that doesn’t happen? What if the Big Four meatpackers further consolidate into the big three, two or one?
ALDERSON: We’re not going to have the kind of ranching that we know now. If we don’t change things, we’re just not going to have these ranches. … And that’s such a huge cost to all of us in this country.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeanie Alderson. She’s a fourth generation rancher at the Bones Brothers Ranch in Birney, Montana. She’s also a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group.
Well, let’s turn now to Bill Bullard. He heads the advocacy group Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. He’s also a former rancher, and he joins us from Billings, Montana. Bill, welcome to the show.
BILL BULLARD: Hello, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So there’s a lot to dig into. Because I really want to help listeners understand as much as they can about how the beef industry works, you know, from ranch to dinner table. So first of all, can you give us a picture of where we are now? Number of head of cattle in the United States, number of ranches, et cetera? How would you describe that?
BULLARD: Well, we have about 729,000 independent cattle producers to ranchers left in the United States, and that’s a decline from 1.3 million head just a few decades ago. Today, we have six million head fewer cattle in our cattle herd than we had in just the four decades ago. And so our industry is shrinking. And one of the marketing outlets that’s critically important to ranchers like Jeanie is the cattle feeding sector. And we’ve lost 75% of all the independent cattle feeders in this industry just since 1996.
And so that’s in about 25 years. And so the entire industry is contracting at an alarming rate, and that’s because the government has de-emphasized the family farm and ranch system of agriculture that is a disaggregated system, and has earned the envy of the entire world for producing an abundant, affordable and safe food supply.
And instead, there’s been catering to the large corporate agribusinesses in pursuing the largeness of scale. And as a result, we’ve seen these monopolistic structures within the industry that’s essentially purged competition from throughout the entire industry. And that’s why you could say that cattle producers are dropping like flies right now. We’re losing our competitive infrastructure within the entire marketing system. And if something isn’t done very, very quickly, we’ll soon reach the point of no return, as Jeanie indicated.
CHAKRABARTI: And when you say if something isn’t done very quickly, I mean, how quickly are you talking about? I mean, if we look five, 10 years into the future, what do you see?
BULLARD: Way too late. We’ve got to do something this year. We’ve got to restore competition. Because there are ranchers that are going bankrupt, that are selling out. We’ve got additional feedlots that are closing their doors. And once you lose the competitive infrastructure, it’s game over for the entire industry. And we’ll look like the hog industry, where 90% of all the producers in business just 40 years ago are gone today. And that’s because the corporate agribusinesses have essentially controlled that industry from birth to plate, as they have in the poultry industry.
So the ranching industry is the last frontier, and meaningful reforms need to be implemented immediately or we will soon become, as Jeanie said, unlike what we know the ranching industry today. It will be completely different.
CHAKRABARTI: When we come back, we’re going to talk a lot more about exactly what the choke points are, where this consolidation is happening most rapidly in the beef and ranching industry. Today is part one of our special weeklong series called More than money: The cost of monopolies in America. We’ll have more when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today is part one of our special week-long series that we’re calling More than money: The cost of monopolies in America, where we’re taking a look at the idea now championed by the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, that monopolistic business practice isn’t just bad for consumers, but it may be bad for American democracy. So that’s what we’re taking a look at over the course of this week.
And today we’re focusing in on what’s happening right now in the American beef industry, specifically. All the way from cattle ranchers, to what happens in the supermarket. And I’m joined today by Bill Bullard. He heads the advocacy group the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. And they brought a class action lawsuit against meatpackers in America, and we’ll talk about that in just a minute. So, Bill, tell me a little bit more. Let’s get a good understanding of how the process works right now. So the ranchers raise the cattle, and then where do the cattle go next?
BULLARD: Well, there are several segments of the live cattle supply chain. So ranchers like Jeanie will raise a calf off of the mother cows that she will care for throughout the year. And that calf would be sold, perhaps by Jeanie, in the fall. Weighing between 400 or 500 pounds. It would then move to an intermediary segment of the industry that will grow that calf for several more months, maybe another six months. And then the calf will ultimately weigh 800 to 900 pounds, [and] would be brought to the feedlot sector of the industry. And that’s where the animal is fed the concentrated diet, gains weight at a very fast pace. And then when the animal weighs approximately 1,300 pounds, it will be sold directly to the packers. And as you indicated, there’s four packers controlling 85% of that market.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s talk a little bit then about how Tyson, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS became the dominant force in the meatpacking industry. Wasn’t it about, I don’t know, 40-ish years ago that it was a lot more distributed across the United States? Because it was just back in the 1980s, as I said earlier, that they had, what, 25% of the industry. So how did that change so rapidly?
BULLARD: Well, that’s because the corporate agribusinesses went to Congress and the executive branch and convinced them that what the American family farm and ranch system could do well, they could do better. And so they pursued this ideal of largeness of scale. The larger the enterprise, the greater the efficiency, and the more consistent the quality. And as a result, we began losing hundreds of thousands of cattle producers all across the country. Because there was a paradigm shift in the laws, and regulations and policies that provide the framework of this industry. And those laws, and regulations and policies catered to the interests of the multinational meatpackers. To the disadvantage of the producers, the cattle producers, as well as to the consumers.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, there is, though, a law, speaking of laws and regulations, that’s been on the books since 1921, right? The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. And if I read that properly, this is a law, it’s century-old now, that was supposed to keep exactly the kind of consolidation we’re talking about, well below 40%.
BULLARD: That’s right, it went beyond what our U.S. antitrust laws did. Because not only did it prohibit monopolistic practices in the industry, but it was designed to protect the interests, the financial interests of actual farmers and ranchers. It was designed to ensure that the meat packers would not engage in deceptive, or discriminatory or unfair practices against producers. As well as that the packers would not provide undue preferences or advantages to some of the feedlot sectors, to the disadvantage of others. In other words, if they’re given sweetheart deals to some of the largest formula feeders, cattle feeders that have close alliances with the packers. And that’s why we’ve seen our smaller, independent, family-sized feedlots go by the wayside. We’ve lost over 83,000 of them in just 25 years.
CHAKRABARTI: But tell me more, though. I mean, ostensibly when we have a law that’s on the books that says consolidation shouldn’t go above 40%, and then it skyrockets from 25% in the early 80s to 85% 40 years later, something has gone wrong regarding regulatory enforcement.
BULLARD: Well, that’s right, there is lack of enforcement. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that was charged with implementing and administering the Packers and Stockyards Act, never even wrote rules to clarify what Congress meant by protecting producers against unfair, and deceptive and discriminatory practices. And so the packers were left to operate with impunity in the marketplace. And the Packers and Stockyards Act was not enforced.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so tell me a little bit more. Again, for people who aren’t familiar with this. In the first segment, we talked about how the belief among cattle ranchers, what you’re seeing now is that because of this pinch point in the middle of the process with the four big meatpackers — And by the way, we did reach out to Tyson, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS. They did not get back to us.
Bill, how is it that you say that they’re able to essentially set prices? Clarify that.
BULLARD: Well, because of the dominant market position that they enjoy in the cattle industry, they can act as gatekeepers to the market. And they can decide who does and who does not have timely access to the market. And as a result, they can provide preferences to their large, closely aligned feedlots. And completely deprive the independent cattle feeder of the same types of prices and terms in terms of selling cattle. So that’s one way that they were able to. The other way is they’ve implemented new cattle procurement tools, tools with which to purchase cattle.
And what they’ve done is they’ve shifted large volumes of cattle out of the competitive cash market, which is the industry’s price discovery market. And they place those cattle in underpriced forward contracts. We call those captive supplies. The industry wants to call them alternative marketing arrangements, because they sound better. The fact of the matter is is they are the instrument of choice by the packers to leverage down the cattle prices that they pay to U.S. producers. And that’s exactly what’s happened in our industry.
CHAKRABARTI: How much have they been able to leverage it down?
BULLARD: Well, consumers need to know that they are paying super inflated prices for beef today in the grocery store. And yet cattle producers continue to receive seriously depressed prices. And so they have depressed prices from $167 per hundred weight for an animal, down to we were as low as $100 per hundred weight within the last few years. And very recently, cattle prices have started to increase. Now up to around $140 per hundred weight.
But very importantly, based on USDA data, that means the independent feeder has, over the past seven years, has lost on average $69 per head of every animal they fed and sold to the packers. So that explains why we’ve lost so many independent feeders. And so what’s happened in the industry is the consumers are being exploited on one end of the supply chain, and cattle producers are being exploited on the other end. And as you indicated, the middlemen are making record profits.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, I’m looking at a USDA chart here. And it’s like a visual representation of what you exactly described there, Bill. That from 2010 to roughly 2015, in a sense, the price that ranchers got per hundred weight, and the price of beef in the consumer market, kind of tracked pretty closely. But then starting in 2015, we have this giant divergence, just like crashing of cattle prices. And a steady and then rising rate for the price of beef. So it’s that divergence that’s driving the ranchers out of business, is what you’re talking about.
BULLARD: That’s right, there’s always been a harmonious, synchronous relationship between beef prices and cattle. And that makes sense, because the only ingredient in beef is cattle. But after 2015, we saw cattle prices inexplicably collapse for over a year. And we saw it beginning in 2017, we saw these two price points moving in absolutely opposite directions. We saw consumer beef prices rising to all-time record highs. And at the same time, we saw cattle prices stair stepping downward. And that indicates that competition has been purged from the entire live cattle supply chain.
CHAKRABARTI: And you’re saying that the delta goes into the profit of the Big Four.
BULLARD: The meatpackers are making all-time record margins, and have been for many years. While cattle producers are struggling just to receive the cost of production from the marketplace. Many are failing to do so. Meanwhile, consumers continue to pay these super inflated prices for beef.
CHAKRABARTI: So I want to get your response to some of the things that the meatpacking industry has said in response to these criticisms. Again, just want to remind everyone we did reach out to Tyson, Cargill, National Beef Packing Co. and JBS. Did not hear back from them. But, there has been a lot of testimony on Capitol Hill about this. Shane Miller is group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, and he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of just last year. And here’s how he answered a question from Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley about that meat packing company profit-taking.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY [Tape]: Cattle producers struggle to break even, receiving average bids of approximately $118 per hundred weight. The gross packer market exceeded $1,000 per head. How do you justify making such low bids when you’re turning such a significant profit?
SHANE MILLER: What we pay Iowa cattle feeders truly depends on the market conditions. But how they end up deciding to sell their cattle, whether they want to negotiate or put them on an AMA, is totally up to them.
CHAKRABARTI: So Bill Bullard, the AMA there he’s mentioning, being that alternative meat market. He’s saying that the ranchers, the cattlemen and women out there have a choice.
BULLARD: And they certainly do not, and that’s because of the perishable nature of cattle. Once cattle have reached that optimum weight of approximately 1,300 pounds, there’s a narrow window of opportunity to sell those animals, and it’s about a two to three week window. If you go beyond that, the animal begins to degrade in quality and the cattle feeder is uneconomically continuing to feed those cattle, they become overweight and the cattle producer loses money. Now the meatpackers know this, and they have a tremendous bargaining advantage over the independent producer.
Because again, you have four packers acting as gatekeepers. They can decide who does and who does not have timely access to the marketplace, so they create market access risk for producers. And of course, in our lawsuit, we’ve alleged that the meatpackers have conspired to reduce the slaughter volume in order to balance supply and demand. To ensure that there is never more demand for cattle than there is in available supply.
And we talk about these AMAs because what happens when the meatpackers shift cattle out of the cash market, and when they avoid the cash market, they back up cattle that the independent cattle feeders feeding. And that incentivizes that feeder to do one of two things. Either to sell for a low, low price or jump into one of these AMAs in order to gain timely access to the marketplace, regardless of what the price is going to be. Because no price is determined at the time of the transaction.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, the meatpackers say that basically the problem isn’t the consolidation and their market dominance. The problem is all of these other factors that are out of their control. I mean, for example, here is Dustin Aherin. He’s now director of strategy at Tyson Fresh Meats. June of last year, he was with Rabo AgriFinance. And that month, he testified before the Senate Ag Committee on what he says really drives cattle prices in the U.S.
DUSTIN AHERIN [Tape]: A working market sends price signals to adjust. These same price signals created record high cattle prices and record packer losses in 2014 and 2015. The biology and natural time delays of the beef industry make it slow-moving and capital intensive, adjustments take years. While recent unforeseen events have exacerbated the situation, free market signals, economic losses, drought and the natural cattle cycle laid the foundation for today’s circumstances over several decades.
CHAKRABARTI: What’s your response to that, Bill?
BULLARD: Well, what’s missing here is that we do not have consumers sending demand signals upstream in the beef supply chain. And they cannot, because there is no indication as to the country of origin on the beef. And without that country of origin label, the meatpackers can substitute imported products from over 20 countries, and displace the American cattle producers access to their own domestic market. And that’s what we’ve seen. Because we cannot have consumers indicating that they want cattle produced from American cattle producers. The meatpackers have been free to import large quantities of beef and cattle from foreign countries such as Namibia, Africa, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and pass that off to unsuspecting consumers. But the effect of that is … to reduce demand for domestic cattle, and that reduced demand in the competitive cash market is what helps drive the prices down.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, here’s the outcome of some of this. We also talked to Aaron Metz of Wishek, North Dakota. He’s a fourth generation rancher, and he and his wife are selling their cattle herd off today.
AARON METZ: It hasn’t really hit me hard yet, because the cows are still here. But on Monday, when they go … I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’ll probably fall apart. When you see years and years of genetics that you have worked for. You have froze for. You have sweated for. You have bled for. Going down the road is … heart wrenching.
CHAKRABARTI: Aaron says that this was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. But when he sat down and ran the numbers last month, he realized he could not afford to own the cows anymore.
METZ: Where I’m sitting right now, I’m looking out my window. And I can see my barn. And up on my barn is my brand. My brand was my grandpa’s, in the family 120 years, that one brand. And my plan was to pass it on to my son. And when you look at that brand, that’s the symbol of the legacy of my family. My grandpa came over here on a ship from Germany. You know, he homesteaded, 16-years-old. So that tells you a lot about the people that are doing this and the heritage that’s behind it. It’s kind of a sad deal to even sit here and look [at] it. Because that might not be in the family much longer.
CHAKRABARTI: That brand he’s talking about, by the way, is the symbol of the Green Lake Angus Ranch. And Aaron told us ranching is all he and his family know. But he thinks that by the end of this year, all of that’s going to change.
METZ: Once the cows are gone, and we have a production sale in March, decision has to come. What’s next? Do we sell the land off and move to town? Or do we stay here and scale? You know, just do a hobby deal, and still work in town? Or do we just just go a whole different direction? There’s a lot of tough decisions to be made. You know, at this point, it’s kind of looking like we’re going to probably end up going and getting a job somewhere. Whether we live on the farm place and we do something with the land or whatever, it’s kind of looking like we’re going to town. You know, it shouldn’t be that way, where you have to leave your place to make a living. You should be able to make a fair enough living off of your farm or ranch, to take care of your family. It should just be that way. Things have really, really changed in the last 30 some odd years.
CHAKRABARTI: Fourth generation rancher Aaron Metz, in North Dakota. When we come back, we’re going to be talking about some solutions and the pushback against the monopolization in the beef industry. This is On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: Today is day one of our special weeklong series that we’re calling More than money: The cost of monopolies in America, where we’re taking a look at this idea now championed by the chair of the FTC, Lina Khan, that monopolies in America don’t just harm consumers, they harm democracy.
And so today, in part one, we’re taking a close look at the radical and rapid changes that have happened in the beef industry in the past 40 years, and what impact that’s having on ranchers, consumers and also more broadly on democracy. And Bill Bullard joins us. He’s head of the advocacy group the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. Also, a former rancher himself, is with us from Billings, Montana. And I want to play a little bit of tape from just last month because this issue has gone all the way to the White House. Here’s President Biden at a virtual roundtable with farmers and ranchers in January.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN [Tape]: Back in July, I signed an executive order to promote competition across the economy. And too many industries, a handful of giant companies dominate the market. And too often they use their power to squeeze out smaller competitors and stifle new entrepreneurs, making our economy less dynamic, giving themselves free rein to raise prices, reduce options for consumers or exploit workers. The meat industry is a textbook example, on the price side. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.
CHAKRABARTI: President Biden just last month. The Biden administration has proposed better enforcement around things like the Packers and Stockyards Act that we talked about. And $1 billion to expand independent meat processing capacity. And $100 million to support hiring the workers that would be needed for an increased number of meat packing facilities. Will it make a difference, Bill?
BULLARD: The problem is that you do not first address the abuse of market power being exercised in the marketplace today. We’re likely to see a repeat of the ’80s, which was considered a merger mania decade. And that’s because the meatpackers used their leverage in order to force all of the local and regional packing plants out. So having more packing plants will increase capacity. And some will survive, but some are going to be subjected to the same kind of monopolistic-type conduct in the marketplace. Unless we first aggressively enforce the antitrust laws, the Packers and Stockyards Act. And in fact, this crisis is so severe it’s now become a national food security issue. And Congress needs to act decisively in order to immediately restore competition to the industry.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so specifically, then what would that mean? I mean, you have a lawsuit working its way through the courts now. But ideally, enforcement could come independent of that.
BULLARD: Well, that’s right. And for ranchers like Aaron, it’s too late. And his story is being replicated all across the United States. And as I said earlier, we’ll soon reach the point of no return. And so lawsuits take a long time. Congress needs to act decisively. They know there’s a problem. The president has identified the problem, and articulated it. Congress needs to act right now to prevent any further ranchers from having to exit the industry, simply because the marketplace is fundamentally and systemically broken. Because the regulators have not enforced antitrust laws, or the Packers and Stockyards Act, for decades.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, as I said, we did speak with the North American Meat Institute. They represent a lot of meatpackers. And spokeswoman Sarah Little told us that the Meat Institute does not think that the Biden plan or the additional $1 billion of government funding to expand meat packing capacity, doesn’t think that that will work.
SARAH LITTLE: The first problem with spending that money to invest in extra capacity is, Is it sustainable? Where will they get the labor to operate this new capacity, given the nationwide labor shortage? What will happen is they will create too much packing capacity, and we will not have enough cattle to run through those facilities. The herd size is shrinking. USDA reports each month on the herd inventory in America. And it has been consistently falling. So we’re just saying that the new capacity supported by the government is not the answer to better prices for livestock producers.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute. … [Joining us now] is Claire Kelloway, program manager for fair food and farming systems at the Open Markets Institute. She’s with us from Minneapolis.
… First of all, I mean, just respond quickly to what you heard Sarah Little say. It sounds like they’re asserting that it’s not at all capacity, or an expansion of capacity, that will solve the problem. What do you think?
CLAIRE KELLOWAY: I mean … what kind of capacity are you talking about? I think the system that we currently have proved very fragile. And we do see that large meat packers, when they don’t face sufficient competition, don’t have that incentive to invest in their capacity and critically invest in resiliency, and have backups and contingency plans. They both, as Bill has been talking about, have an incentive for there not to be a lot of excess processing capacity. So they can really control the supply of cattle. But they also are under a quite restrictive system that is really focused on operating at full capacity all the time. And what we’ve seen is a resilient meat supply system really requires a diversity of both scale and some large plants. But also large plants owned by multiple packers, and more medium-sized plants that can fill in when some of these large plants go down.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So it’s interesting to me. Because this consolidation in the middle of that supply chain, between ranchers and the grocery store was allowed to happen, right? I mean, we went from that 25% among the Big Four to the 85%, it was allowed to happen. And how different is that Claire, if at all, from … other types of food, poultry, pork?
KELLOWAY: Yeah, the beef packing industry is certainly more consolidated than pork and chicken. They obviously all have slightly different supply chains, but there definitely has been an overall trend across meat processing and food processing generally towards consolidation. Sort of aligned with when merger policy was really less restricted, and more mergers were permitted across the industry. So certainly beef is both more concentrated, but also all industries are tending towards concentration.
CHAKRABARTI: And just to be clear and correct me if I’m wrong, but for example, in poultry, what you have is really vertical consolidation. Is that right?
KELLOWAY: Yes, vertical consolidation. But also there are high degrees of horizontal consolidation at the regional level. So about half of all chicken farmers report having just one or two chicken processors to sell to.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. OK. We’re running out of time here. So Bill, let me just get down to essentials here. First of all, we should acknowledge that Senator Chuck Grassley is trying to get legislation through Congress that would, for example, require that 50% of cattle go through open public auctions, versus the smaller percentage now. Would that help?
CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely. That is how we could restore competition for domestic cattle in the U.S. marketplace. We must force the packers to again begin competing in the competitive marketplace. So the Senator Grassley’s bill, is Senate Bill 949, is critically important. But the other measure is we have to empower consumers to begin sending those demand signals throughout the supply chain. And the only way they can do that is with a mandatory country of origin label. So they can choose to support the domestic supply chain, the American cattle farmer or rancher, or choose to buy beef produce under some other country’s food safety regime. Such as Namibia, Africa or Uruguay or Costa Rica, Nicaragua or any one of the 20 countries.
And so those are the two triage measures that are needed immediately in order to begin restoring competition to the marketplace. And one important factor here. The cattle industry is the single largest segment of American agriculture. Meaning it’s vitally important to rural communities all across America. But it’s also unique because it under-produces for the domestic market. And so our industry is shrinking in terms of number of producers, number of cattle, number of feedlots. And at the same time, imports are increasing. And so they’re displacing and essentially preventing the U.S. cattle industry from even growing. And so that’s the fallacy behind the North American Meat Institute’s statement, is that there is demand for beef. It’s simply being brought in offshore, as opposed to being produced here in America.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Bill Bullard with the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. Joining us from Billings, Montana. Bill, thank you so much for being with us today.
BULLARD: My pleasure. Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Claire, I’ve got one more question for you, before we have to turn a corner here. You know, our big picture analysis across this week is trying to explore the assertion that the current FTC chair, Lina Khan has. That monopolies are not just bad for consumers, but bad for democracy. That’s a very big statement. Do you think that rings true or not in the case of what we’re talking about with the beef industry?
KELLOWAY: I think it does. And I think it’s really connected to the antimonopoly tradition in the United States, and the reasoning behind some of these laws being introduced way back when. But, really, corporate power in the terms of economic power and the size that some of these corporations have accommodated to, also translates into political power. And we’re seeing right now just how challenging it is to regulate what is very clearly an issue with skyrocketing prices, with all the disruption we’ve seen, with farmers seeing such persistent low prices. The evidence is clear. And yet it is such a political struggle to enforce laws that are on the books and reform the system. So I think absolutely concentrated corporate power translates into political power. And that’s a threat to enacting democratic policies that people, ranchers, consumers are asking for.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Claire Kelloway, with the Open Markets Institute. Thank you so much for joining us.
KELLOWAY: Yes, thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Let me turn now to Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. He’s going to be with us throughout this week. Hello there, Jack.
JACK BEATTY: Hello, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so you’ve been listening along, Jack. I mean, how do you see what’s happening with the beef industry in the broader picture of American corporate power in the past 20, 25 years?
BEATTY: It’s really the story of what’s happened to American corporate power. According to one study, 75% of industries saw more concentration, just in the last 15 years. These include lighting and bulb manufacturers, four companies controlled 90% of the market. Tires, four companies, 90%. Household appliances, four companies, 90%. Sanitary paper manufacturers, four companies, 92%. Beer, one company has 70%. And of course, there’s big tech, we’re going to get into tomorrow. But wherever you look in the American economy, this is an age of oligopoly and/or monopoly.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you heard Bill talk about the fact that there are laws already on the books right now that could be enforced, that might have headed off this consolidation in the beef industry. So again, it just always requires regulatory and political will. Do you see that potentially emerging in the face of this tsunami?
BEATTY: One would like it to be, but it’s far too seek. You know, polls of what people think of big business shows basically half and half. Half like it, half don’t. But you know, there was a kind of road test in the last campaign of, Do you want to break monopolies? That was the foundation of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. She came fourth in New Hampshire. She came third in her own state. People weren’t listening. It wasn’t what they thought of as the major problem.
Maybe one problem with her position and with, you know, ripping up public support for this is the connection with inequality. Are the two things related? You know, the concentration of industry and the share of national income going to the top 1%. In 1969, that was 8% of national income went to the top 1%. Today, it’s a quarter, 25%. Are the two things related? Are all of us somehow being impoverished by this great concentration at the top? We’ll have to see how that debate goes.
CHAKRABARTI: Jack, give us like a like a one minute preview of what’s coming down the pike next week, specifically on this point. Because you have written entire books about the political culture at the heart of the previous great wave of antitrust action in this country a century ago. How different is the culture that you just talked about now, the political culture versus then?
BEATTY: The big difference is ideas have changed. And we’re going to get into this. The role, particularly of the Chicago School of Economics, on jurisprudence and understanding what antitrust is. Everything now in the legal profession comes down to, Is it a monopoly if the price is remains low? If the consumer gets a bargain, there’s no harm done. And the leader of this, of course, was Robert Bork, whose book was massively influential. And it is still the case that the courts are the gatekeepers here. And the courts are permeated, pervaded by people, by judges, lawyers, the establishment bar that believe that idea. That antitrust is a faded passion, as Richard Hofstadter called it, a fading passion of American reform. We don’t need it. We’re getting cheap goods. That’s enough. No other harm arises from monopoly, huh?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, as Jack said, tomorrow we’re going to be looking at the tech sector, specifically. Because FTC Chair Lina Khan has actually made her career focusing on monopolistic practices in the tech sector. So we’ll be talking about what the proposed merger between Microsoft and Activision Blizzard might tell us. Jack is joining us for the full hour on Wednesday, where we’re going to go back in time, a century or more. And talk about the previous big waves of antitrust fervor in this country. And then as Jack mentioned, on Thursday, we’re doing a show that’ll take a look at Robert Bork’s influence on how antitrust is defined in the United States. And then on Friday, we’re going to ask this question about whether Lina Khan and Elizabeth Warren are asking the right question about problems with democracy, problems with inequality. But is focusing on monopolies the wrong solution to the right question? So Jack, are you looking forward to it?
BEATTY: I am. I’m keen.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, well, we’ll be hearing from Jack every single day this week during our special series More than money: The cost of monopolies in America. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From The Reading List
BIG by Matt Stoller: “Beef Is Expensive. So Why Are Cattle Ranchers Going Bankrupt?” — “During the Covid pandemic, Americans went to the supermarket and found something that hadn’t happened for decades – a meat shortage. There was plenty of cattle, but the beef wasn’t getting to the supermarket shelves.”
TIME: “U.S. Food Prices Are Up. Are the Food Corporations to Blame for Taking Advantage?” — “2021 was a bad year for grocery bills. Shoppers paid 6.4% more for groceries in November 2021 compared to November 2020, according to the consumer price index.”
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