Published at Civil Eats, June 11, 2014
As comedian John Oliver said last week in his much-watched primer on net neutrality, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” Big Ag has known this strategy for years and perhaps no one does it better than the meatpackers and poultry companies—companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and trade organizations like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council.
They’ve got a head start because the struggle over their domination of the marketplace has taken place over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspectors, Packers, and Stockyards Administration, known as GIPSA. Under the cover of a bureaucratic sounding name and an obscure government agency, meat companies have quietly flexed considerable lobbying muscle to kill one of the most important policy reforms for livestock and poultry farmers and ranchers—and therefore one of the most important policy reforms for those of us who care how our meat is raised.
The GIPSA rules—let’s call them “fair farm rules” for short—were proposed back in 2010 and designed to address the growing power of just a few corporations in the increasingly consolidated meat industry. Nationally, the top four companies in each industry slaughter four out of every five beef cattle, two out of three hogs and three out of five chickens. At the local or regional level, one company often controls an even larger percentage of the market.
Tim Gibbons, of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, says that consolidation has meant “the meatpackers report huge profits, while farmers’ share of the retail dollar has gone down dramatically—and consumers still see food prices rising at the grocery store.” In Missouri, Gibbons adds, thousands of independent small and mid-size family hog farmers have gone out of business because they don’t have access to a fair market. “Because of massive corporate control of the market, we’ve lost 91 percent of hog producers in Missouri since 1985. That’s over 20,000 farmers and many, many jobs in our rural communities.”
It’s not much better on the consumer side. As the Washington Post points out, “Americans have never had so few options in deciding what company makes their meat.” Even as a growing number of local and niche markets make it easier for some consumers to trace the source of their meat, the trend in the rest of the marketplace is towards rampant consolidation. Just this week, Tyson Foods, the second largest meat producer in the world, sealed a bid to take over processed food giant Hillshire Farms, seller of Jimmy Dean and Sara Lee. When just a few companies control most of the market—and can use their power to keep out or buy up competitors—consumer choice is something of an illusion, and questions about food safety, antibiotics or other additives, animal welfare, and even taste can be tough to answer.