Tag Archives: DOJ/USDA

5 Reasons the Tyson-Hillshire Buyout is a Big [Meat] Deal

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale     Published at Civil Eats, September 3, 2014

Although it has been in the works for months, the merger of Tyson Foods and Hillshire Brands went public the week before Labor Day, when the U.S. Justice Department approved the deal. The merger brings together the largest meat processing company in the U.S. (Tyson) and the 11th largest (Hillshire), for $7.7 billion. And even if you buy mainly sustainable and grassfed meat, this merger is worth watching. Here’s why:

1. You’re probably eating Tyson meat without even knowing it.

Tyson was interested in Hillshire in part for its branded products: Jimmy Dean, Ball Park Franks, and Hillshire Farms. The “frozen handheld breakfast sandwich” is one of the company’s specialties. Tyson hasn’t had similar success with its own forays into branded meat products (Day Starts frozen breakfasts, anyone?) and sees the merger as an opportunity to direct meat from its processing empire into an already successful national brand. Until now, Tyson has excelled at selling unbranded meat to restaurants and cafeterias and it is the national leader in “private label” meats–those sold as in-house supermarket brands. So when you eat bacon at a restaurant or chicken salad at the supermarket deli, if it doesn’t feature the name of the farm, there’s a pretty good chance it’s from Tyson.

2. Independent meat producers are an endangered species.

Tyson has become powerful by vertically integrating its operations: It buys up all the component parts of its supply chain, from grain dealers to breeding facilities to slaughterhouses, and incorporates them into the company to gain control over prices and production. As other companies have followed suit, encouraged by market forces and the “get big or get out” policies that prevail across agriculture, independent farmers and their supporting businesses have been bought out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. lost about 70 percent of its hog operations–150,000 farms–between 1993 and 2012 and with them went much agricultural infrastructure. As a result, the few independent farmers producing pastured pork humanely often have to drive 200 miles each way to a slaughterhouse. By buying up so many pieces of the farm supply chain, Tyson has contributed to an environment where many of the producers working outside their system must struggle to survive.

3. Tyson has its eye on the sustainable meat sector.

If you eat “better” quality meat, you might not pay much attention to Tyson. But Tyson is paying attention to you. Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food economy and even two years after Lay’s advertised its potato chips as local, corporations have not slowed their pursuit of the natural and sustainable markets. And meat is one of the biggest potential growth areas. Most of the nation does not have access to high quality, locally-raised meat in the grocery store, particularly value-added products like sausage and hot dogs. A few towns are beginning to rebuild their local slaughterhouses or sausage companies, but the infrastructure is rare. If the expanded Tyson/Hillshire sets its sights on this vast market and starts putting out greenwashed imitation products, it could block regional efforts to rebuild truly sustainable meat production.

…read the rest at Civil Eats…

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How Congress Is Moving to Crush Protections for Small Meat and Poultry Producers (And Why You Should Care)

civil_eats_logo.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scalePublished 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.

…read the rest at Civil Eats…

United We Eat

I recently rediscovered this essay I wrote in 2011, and on rereading three years later, realized it’s something of a manifesto, laying out my general philosophy and background. Published at Civil Eats, March 30, 2011.

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had a debate in the Washington Post about rural subsidies; the substance of which was then analyzed and thoroughly skewered in a couple of excellent posts by Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs and Tom Philpott at Grist. The whole affair got me thinking about another urban/rural discussion I read at the end of last year, this one focused on food—and about how counterproductive all of our country/city dividing lines are.

In December, the Atlantic published “The 10 Biggest Food Stories of 2010,” a list that ranged from restaurant trends to food truck and butchery trends, with a smattering of food policy in between. In response, the Daily Yonder (motto: “Keep It Rural.”) ran “The (Real) Important Food Stories of 2010,” pointing out that the Atlantic’s list included “no mention of either the people or the places that produce food,” and that it was “heavy on New York City.” (Both true.)

The Yonder’s list gave a much more substantive picture of food issues in 2010: the Department of Justice/USDA investigation of corporate consolidation in food and agriculture; the USDA’s proposed fair farm rules, seed and dairy crises, and the skyrocketing price of rural land—all issues that affect not only the Daily Yonder’s rural readers, but all of us who eat. I was all set to recommend the article to all my colleagues, and then I got to the last line. “As you can see,” the writers concluded, “not a one of these stories begins in Brooklyn.” Now, wait just a minute there.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for seven years, working on food justice issues for most of that time, so I took the conclusion personally. But there’s a larger issue. Brooklyn has a vibrant, diverse food scene that ranges from decades-old community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant to, yes, a Williamsburg “butchering icon.” Small snapshots of Brooklyn food have been much hyped lately in both local and national media, but they don’t tell the whole story—and they seem mostly to alienate much of the rest of the country (as well as more than a few Brooklynites). The Daily Yonder was right: the Atlantic list was out of touch. But digging on Brooklyn just exacerbates the problem. Both publications—and all of us who are working for a better, healthier, and more just food system—need to start thinking about food as a way to come together rather than something to divide us. If we keep seeing ourselves as divided between rural and urban, we won’t change anything. Continue reading United We Eat