The Biden administration has sought to lower beef prices by increasing competition, but farmers say the July 2021 executive order did not go far enough, as four large meatpackers still dominate the U.S. market.
"We want to bring some semblance of competition back to cattle market," Missouri Rural Crisis Center's Tim Gibbons told The Hill.
"Missouri has 50,000 cattle producers, but 80% of beef packing is controlled by four companies," he added, representing 5,600 farms.
"Nothing has changed."
Ranchers blame the Obama administration for allowing beef products to be labeled "Product of USA" if it was merely processed in the country, allowing the large companies to buy cheap foreign-raised beef and labeling it American-made.
"That pound of ground beef may say 'Made in the USA,' but it could be from five or six countries," Missouri rancher Darvin Bentlage told The Hill.
Biden's order might have closed that loophole to pass foreign beef to consumers as made in America, but ranchers question the ability of federal regulators to carry through on it.
"The industry, because of its economic power, is using political power to chip away at regulations," Yale's Thurman Arnold Project Deputy Director Austin Frerick told The Hill.
Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and JBS emerged as the big four meatpackers by 2012 and their consolidated power lobbied the Obama administration to keep the USDA from excessive regulatory authority and the country of origin labeling.
"In a time of down cattle markets, the last thing USDA needs to do is limit opportunity," National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Tracy Brunner argued then, according to The Hill. "The fact of the matter is: We don’t trust the government to meddle in the marketplace."
Lobbying for large meatpackers, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) argued the big companies help manage costs for the small farmers.
"The notion that smaller-scale operations are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than larger scale is not supported by the data which suggests that efficiency is the most important factor," according to NAMI.
Rancher Bentlage's data says otherwise. He told The Hill he was making $518 a head on cows in 2014, but now it is between just $80 and $125 – all while inflation is rising.
"That means a hundred cows would make you $51,000 in 2014," he added to The Hill. "This year, they're projecting it will be maybe $12,500. That's still at the poverty level."
As the income for the local farmer dwindles, meat prices for the consumer rose 20% between October 2020 and October 2021, federal data showed.
There bills are introduced in Congress to help address the issues, according to the report:
- A bill by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., seeks to force cattle processors to buy 50% of their cows on "spot" markets rather than off-market deals that currently account for 90% of purchases.
- A bill by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to put a stop on consolidated factory farms.
- The American Beef Labeling Act bill by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Tester and Booker, to restore labels for beef raised in America.
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