It may seem like your local grocery store offers a variety of beef, chicken, and pork. The truth is, most of the brands on those shelves are owned by a tiny collection of companies, both foreign and domestic. Four companies control over 50% of the market in chicken processing (Tyson, JBS, Perdue, and Sanderson), close to 70% in pork (Smithfield, JBS, Tyson, and Hormel), and 80% in beef (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef). The myriad of products with clever branding and catchy marketing taglines contribute to the illusion of choice. In reality, your grocery store’s meat department mostly offers products from “The Big 4.”
These meat conglomerates have expanded massively after decades of political lobbying, weak government regulation, and unchecked mergers and acquisitions – the not so pretty side of capitalism. What’s quite alarming is half of beef’s Big 4 aren’t even American owned, and due to their size and influence, these mega meat producers dictate a staggering amount of what our 2 million farmers grow every year, how much they’re paid (and it’s not much – just 15 cents of each dollar spent on their product the grocery store goes to them, and 39 cents on the dollar for ranchers), as well as what American consumers eat, and how much our groceries cost. What do crops have to do with meat? Well, 50% of corn grown in America is for livestock (which is not edible for humans), along with 80% of the soy.
The Big 4 are a prime example of an oligopoly – an economic condition in which a small number of sellers exert control over the market of a commodity. They reduce (in some cases, obliterate) competition, increase prices for consumers, and lower wages for employees – and considering half are foreign owned, they raise serious concerns about national security.
The events of 2020 shed light on many issues in our country and further exposed America’s weakening food supply chain, notably within the meat industry. There are unquestionable price advantages for the consumer due to centralization, but how much centralization is too much centralization?
For the last 50 years, the meat industry’s motto has been “get big, or get out.” But now, a growing number of farmers, factory workers, rural communities, academics, environmentalists, animal protection activists, public health experts, and even consumers are uniting to call for a new era: “Get the big out.”
Cartoon Source: Keppler, Udo J., Artist. Tweedledee and Tweedledum / Keppler. N.Y.: Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann, Puck Building. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,