The American Meat Institute (AMI) thinks that everything is just fine in the meat industry. They represent the biggest meat packers and processors—the ones who have consolidated the meatpacking industry into a market dominated by four firms that exercise tremendous leverage over independent cattle producers. The few companies in control of the market insist that there is nothing wrong.
But, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are in Fort Collins, Colorado today, listening to the testimonies of independent ranchers who have been struggling to get fair prices for their cattle from the meat packer monopolies. If nothing is wrong in the meat industry, why would these top U.S. officials travel to the Mountain State to listen to the concerns of ranchers and small farmers at a joint hearing about restoring competition? And why would the groups like the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), who represent independent cattle producers, rally thousands of people to attend the hearings?
As consumers, we should pay close attention to hearings like this one. They represent an opportunity to fix an ailing food system that threatens the livelihoods of our independent food producers, as well as public health. Are you surprised that food safety is strongly linked to fair competition? The recent egg recall—two companies with 23 million hens and over 30 brands of eggs in half the states—is a prime example of how quickly food contamination in a few companies can end up in everyone’s refrigerator. That’s why, as Denver councilwoman Judy Montero says, "Safer Food Comes From a Fair System."
Even over the weekend, as many people put the egg recall behind them, Cargill (the second largest beef processor in the U.S.) popped into the news with a Class 1 recall. AOL News reporter Andrew Schneider, who has been following the recall, points out that there are several strains of E. coli that are not regulated by the USDA, mostly due to pressure from a powerful meat industry lobbying presence, particularly the American Meat Institute.
Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Meat Institute, doesn’t take the strong rancher turnout in Fort Collins as a sign that there’s a problem. "You have to wonder a little bit about the people who talk about increasing concentration as the source of all evils because, guess what, it hasn't changed for the better part of 20 years," he said. In fact, concentration has gotten worse over the past two decades—in 1990 less than three out of four cattle were slaughtered at the largest four meat packers, but today the big four slaughter nearly nine out of ten cattle.
As Idaho rancher Mabel Dobbs, who is the chair of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, explains in her blog, "Cowboys Versus Packers," the last 20 years haven’t been kind to independent cattle producers. Meat packers drive down the prices of cattle and pay ranchers less-than-fair-prices for their product. And, don’t be fooled into thinking that meat packers do this to keep prices fair for consumers—that savings is not reflected in the price of meat at the store.
Since 1996, 12,000 independent ranching operations have gone out of business. America’s cattle producers—the ones who are still struggling survive—have something very important to say about needed changes to the Farm Bill to ensure that farmers get fair prices and consumers get safe, affordable food. In fact, more than 500 independent ranchers and farmers, meatpacking workers, consumers, urban farmers, and food justice activists gathered for a public forum on the eve of the hearing. We need to listen. Then, we need to act.