In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the meatpacking industry. The FTC issued a report finding that five companies — Wilson, Swift, Morris, Cudahy and Armour — controlled virtually the entire industry and acted as a monopoly. The “Big Five” made competition essentially impossible for smaller companies and systematically defrauded producers and eaters alike by fixing prices, restricting the flow of food, and manipulating markets.
The 1919 FTC report led to the Packers and Stockyards Act, legislation designed to promote fair competition and dilute the enormous power wielded by the Big Five. Among the most important reforms was that the act made stockyards function as public utilities and forbade companies that owned stockyards from dealing in the animals they maintained. It provided oversight, prohibited unlawful practices, made pricing structures more transparent, and stoked competition.
Over the decades, however, enforcement of this legislation has been lacking, often to the point of non-existence.
2010: Farmers Put Their Livelihoods on the Line to Speak Up
In 2010, the USDA and U.S. Department of Justice set up a series of five listening sessions to hear testimony about consolidation in agriculture, which has caused hundreds of thousands of small farms and ranches to be driven out of business by just a few industry giants. In the meat industry, over the three decades between 1980 and 2010, the number of hog farms dropped from 660,000 to 71,000 for an incredible decline of 89%. Cattle ranches decreased by 40%. During that time, the portion of supermarket prices that ranchers and farmers received was cut in half — in 1980, a hog farmer took a 50% cut from pork sold at market but by 2010, the same farmer received just 25%.
Following the listening sessions, USDA and DOJ issued a 24-page report and USDA introduced new proposed rules, the Farmer Fair Practice Rules. But industry pressured and lobbied Congress to block the rules from being finalized. It was a major blow to those calling attention to the dangers of concentration in agriculture, especially the farmers and ranchers who put their livelihoods on the line to share their experiences.
A glimmer of hope appeared in 2016 when, in the final weeks of the Obama Administration, three rules were published to address the anti-competitive practices in the livestock and poultry sectors. That glimmer was quickly extinguished by the incoming Trump Administration, which delayed and then formally withdrew two of the pending Farmer Fair Practices rules in October 2017. When a lawsuit by the Organization for Competitive Markets called attention to USDA’s failure to implement a Farm Bill-mandated policy, a new rule was introduced and finalized on December 10, 2020. This “undue preference” rule received strong criticism from farm advocacy organizations for its failure to provide meaningful protections for producers.
2020: The Pandemic Reveals the Costs of Concentration
The coronavirus pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the vulnerability of America’s food supply chain, especially in the meat industry, due to intense consolidation. The situation is even worse than a century ago when the U.S. first recognized the economic, security, and political dangers of consolidation in our food system. Today, rather than five, just four companies dominate America’s meat production — Tyson, Cargill, National Beef, and JBS control about 80% of America’s beef supply.
2022 and Beyond
With the recent pledges from President Biden and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, we are hopeful that 2022 may finally lead to a new age of transparency and fairness in livestock and poultry markets.
In June of 2021, Secretary Vilsack announced plans to begin work on three proposed rules to support enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards (P&S) Act, the 100-year-old law that was originally designed to protect poultry and hog farmers and cattle ranchers from unfair, deceptive, and anti-competitive practices. These new rules are expected to be rolled out in 2022. Additionally, USDA is looking at the requirements for labeling meat items as a “Product of the USA,” a label that currently allows non-US meat that is processed or repackaged in the US to be labeled “Product of USA.” And in Congress, legislation has also been introduced to help level the playing field for independent ranchers and producers. More than a century after the introduction of the Packers and Stockyards Act, CCAR remains committed to call on — and work with — Congress, USDA, and other agencies to break up the meat-processing monopolies and institute regulation that creates fair markets and prices for farmers and ranchers and eaters.