This is something our generations have not witnessed in agriculture. Well, not just agriculture, but across the board. We are in uncertain times. Prices for livestock have taken a hit in the past weeks and months. This was happening in the beef sector long before the COVID-19 pandemic started to pile on. There are many questions. The farmers are seeing less money for their livestock, which is facing challenges in processing. The consumers are seeing hikes in their prices at the supermarket. This gap just seems to widen every day.
Audio: Agribusiness Matters
If there was any distrust of packing companies before COVID-19, the gloves are off now. However, many of them cannot help the fact that workers are sick, or afraid to come to work and get sick. People sympathize with sick workers and do not want to see anyone else taking ill. They understand the need for worker safety and support it. However, when investigations are being launched into the business of meatpacking, that is where the sympathy stops. That is where you hear people saying that big packers need to quit resting on their cushions stuffed with money and get back to work. It is not often we get to see the juxtaposition of the hate for big corporate conglomerates against the needs of the workers illuminated so clearly and boldly.
Not since Upton Sinclair published, “The Jungle” in 1906, have we seen such a hatred for the meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s classic novel shed light on the lives of immigrant families working in industrialized cities like Chicago at the turn of the last century. Sinclair himself looked at what was happening by working in facilities to research his book and its characters.
The fallout from that book was monumental. Sinclair talked about the conditions of the meat as being sometimes rotten or contaminated. The public was outraged. We saw new federal laws enacted to provide food safety measures on a scale we had never seen before.
We also saw reactions to the author as well. The book was scrutinized and banned in many places. Senator Joe McCarthy took aim at the book in 1953 for “Communist sympathies.” However, this is a discussion for another time.
This distrust of the industry is not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did exacerbate it. On August 6th, 2019, Tyson Foods’ beef processing plant in Holcomb, KS was severely damaged by a fire. The plant’s shutdown meant a loss of a 30,000 head per week killing capacity. Prices also dropped for cattle after the fire. A loss of seven dollars was seen in the first three weeks after the fire alone. Producers cried foul and accused the industry of price-fixing. Some going so far as to accuse the company of setting the fire deliberately to drop the beef prices.
United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced an investigation into the matter. The prices were dropping rapidly, and the Secretary wanted to see if there were instances of price-fixing happening. However, we have not seen any results of the investigation. Now, we are seeing another investigation being launched or added on to the Holcomb, KS investigation. Senator Chuck Grassley joined other Senators to call on Secretary Perdue to investigate how the industry was handling processing and price structures during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Senators cited the further drop in cattle prices and the continued rise in the price of beef at the stores.
Now, the President is getting into the matter as well. President Trump has asked the Department of Justice to investigate meatpackers for price-fixing and market manipulation. This brings the price-fixing investigation count to three, or two if you consider USDA investigation number two to be an addition to USDA investigation number one.
A hundred years ago, the Federal government acted on public outrage towards the meatpacking plant and implemented food quality standards that serve as the bedrock for the systems we have in place today. However, the public seems to be less trusting that something will come of the current investigations. Long gone are the days of good ol’ President T.R. and trust-busting the big monopolies.
Farmers want to believe the government is going to go to bat for them. However, wanting to believe and actually believing are two different things. I do not remember a time I ever heard a farmer say they trusted the government, and I turn 40 this fall. It never mattered what party had control of either side of Congress or the White House, it has always been the same. 2019’s USDA crop surveys have become 2020’s meatpacker operations. I cannot how many times I have heard a farmer talk about the government by saying, “they’re all crooks.” What follows in those observations differs by region.
In the end, we need to see something good come from this. The agriculture industry has faced far too many setbacks in the past eight to ten years. Government regulations and overreach, trade wars, demand destruction, and price uncertainty. Something good must come from this for American farmers because I don’t know how much more many of them can take.