Sue Lani Madsen: Consumers have beef with packers


Sue Lani Madsen, Opinion, The Spokesman-Review (WA)

June 3, 2021


It’s hard to feel sorry for JBS Foods, hit last weekend by an anonymous ransomware attack. One might call it karma. The four multinational meatpackers controlling over 80% of the world market have been holding consumers hostage for years, and JBS is the largest of the four.


Brazil-based JBS usually keeps a low profile behind brands with familiar names, including Pilgrim’s Pride, Swift, USA Pork and USA Beef. Without common sense labeling telling consumers where their meat is born and raised, branding is freely used to leave the impression American consumers are buying American products. The multinationals support anonymity when it suits their own purposes and have used their lobbying power to block country of origin labeling (COOL) legislation that would provide consumers with accurate information.


When JBS shut down operations in North America and Australia after the Memorial Day weekend attack on its IT systems, the cattle industry reacted and futures markets fell. “Beef production dropped by 20% compared to last week and that’s about how much of the market JBS controls in the United States,” according to Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a cattle producer controlled organization. While JBS maintains it is bringing operations back online this week, the prospect of a long shut down was a worry for producers. It also sparked speculation on shortages at the supermarket and rising consumer prices.


Bullard has tracked USDA’s meat price spreadsheets for years. According to Bullard, consumer beef prices rose 20% during the four years leading up to 2015 at the same time the share of the consumer beef dollar going to producers plummeted 29%. It’s an ongoing pattern of disconnection between supply and demand in a broken market. “Consumers are being told there’s a shortage and tight supply and that’s why they pay high prices, at the same time producers are being told there is no demand for their cattle. The packers are exploiting both ends of the supply chain.”


The North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing the interests of JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef, in a recent letter to Congress admitted to controlling the purchase of 85% of all fed cattle raised in the US...