MIAMI COUNTY — Empty store shelves, vacant meat cases and bare freezers have been a consistent reality in nearly every grocery store in America during the COVID-19 pandemic — and it doesn’t look like it will be getting any better soon.
Conover’s Brent Clark and his family have farmed for seven generations. Recently, Clark and his wife Jenna shared their frustration of plummeting beef values beyond their break-even price, the power of the nation’s meat packers with 80 percent control of the market, as well as the U.S. government’s import of beef from 30 countries.
The disease, rendering packing plant employees too ill to either work or fear of contracting the virus, has shuttered and shaken the nation’s largest meat packing facilities — exposing the industry’s power over American livestock producers.
The Wall Street Journal reports the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted production at U.S. meatpacking plants, leading to higher prices and scarcity for popular items like ground beef and chicken in supermarket meat cases. Dublin-based Wendy’s has run out of its fresh, never frozen, burgers, at both local and national restaurants, due to the supply chain breakdown.
As several hundred head of cattle eat quietly behind him and his family, Clark said it’s the consolidation and “funnel” of control to the “Big Four” packing plants that is threatening his family’s livelihood and the chance to turn over the cattle operation over to his three young sons someday.
Clark trucks in cattle from Kentucky and feeds them out on his farm before they are sent to a finishing feed operation in eastern Iowa closer to the large-scale national packing facilities.
The final step is where the issue lies, Clark said. Clark has been taking a sizable loss on every head of cattle while packer profits more than doubled. In a March 30 report, April cattle futures ended last week at a record $18 to $19 under the cash market, according to AgResource.
“These packer’s brow beat you out of the cheapest price they can, and I guess it really made my eyes open,” Clark said, noting beef prices have declined since 2015.
In March, Reuters reported processors were earning over $600 per animal, and ranchers continued to post losses, a bipartisan group of senators urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible price-fixing.
Eleven state attorneys general requested the U.S. Department of Justice investigate “foul play” within the nation’s meat-packing industry this week, as the price of live cattle and retail beef products widens, according to Newsweek.
In a letter issued Tuesday and addressed to federal Attorney General William Barr, officials from 11 states where cattle ranching is prevalent—North Dakota, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming—outlined concerns about the lack of market competition in the U.S. meat processing industry and possible antitrust practices at play. The letter urged the Department of Justice to investigate the nation’s leading meat processing companies, suggesting price-fixing could be behind rising retail costs and declining producer profits.
“In this highly concentrated industry, meat packers have achieved size-able profit margins,” the letter from 11 attorneys general read, noting that four corporations, JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Cargill, control roughly 80 percent of the U.S. beef industry. It additionally cited dangers associated with just a few companies dominating the market.
Imports impact national supply and demand
According to beef industry advocate Beef2Live.com, as of Thursday, the United States has imported 773.8 million pounds of beef so far in 2020, up 4.8 percent from 2019.The United States has imported the most beef so far in 2020 from Canada followed by Australia and Mexico. The United States has imported beef from 19 different countries so far in 2020. U.S. beef imports from Canada are down 9 percent and Australia imports are up 17 percent so far in 2020.
It was the Feb. 20 Reuters report of the first U.S. import of 25 tons of raw or frozen boneless beef from the African nation of Namibia that sent Clark on a fact-finding mission and to reach out to his local representatives. Reports state the African nation hopes to have its beef used for the fast food industry and is part of the duty-free African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Never compelled to reach out to Congress before, it’s the financial storm of beef prices in the red, the first beef import from Namibia and the control of packing plants, which caused Clark to reach out to Congress and local political representatives.
“They were very eager to learn about it from the ground level. They can only lead with the information they are given,” Clark said. “I was very surprised how willing they were to listen, to help.” Clark urged others to reach out to their representatives to support farmers like himself.
Clark said the country needs to be aware of the imbalance of the U.S. meat industry – with both the monopoly of packers and the U.S. imports of meat.
He said consumers should demand that U.S. meat products should have priority ahead of the imports from overseas from countries like Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and Uruguay — and now Namibia.
“I was blown away by the list of names of those countries, and I would encourage anyone to get on there and look, it’s public knowledge. It really shed some light on me. Dad (Russ), Grandpa (Neil) and I have all grew up with the cattle business and were told for years we had too many cattle, too much supply. Our supply isn’t really the American supply shutting us out of business — it’s the imports,” Clark said. Clark said stock haulers have reportedly waited in line for hours as Canadian beef is unloaded as U.S. beef sits on the trucks.
“It’s almost unpatriotic to me to not stand up and be proud of what we’re raising and want to be taken care of first – we are Americans,” Clark said.
Clark said the USDA has balked at the call to bring back the “Country of Origin Labeling” or COOL on every meat product sold on the grocery store shelves. In a March 26 letter to the USDA, beef industry advocates American Grassfed Association and Organization for Competitive Markets demanded more transparent labeling practices. The USDA is reportedly considering new labeling practices to inform consumers where their meat is coming from and tip the scales back in producers’ favor. No timeline for that action has been announced by the USDA as of presstime.
“It’s like the song says, ‘You’ve got to stand for something.’ Well, I’m standing up for families like us just trying to break even doing this,” he said. “My job is being shipped overseas. They are importing meat into this country, and I can’t break even.”
While quietly listening to his grandson as his great-grandchildren played in the yard, Clark’s grandfather Neil summed up his faith in U.S. livestock producers like themselves who have weathered agricultural storms in the past.
“A country boy will survive,” he said, walking back to his truck.