On Monday, President Joe Biden hosted a virtual discussion alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Merrick Garland to discuss plans to overhaul the meat and poultry industry. Notably absent from Biden’s panel with agriculture and farming industry leaders were talks of the ongoing pandemic, which has killed more than 250 workers employed by the five largest meatpacking companies in the country in 2020 alone. More than 59,000 of those workers contracted COVID-19 over the course of 2020, according to a congressional report released last October. The companies—which include Cargill, JBS Foods, National Beef, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson foods—weren’t named during the afternoon discussion, though Biden and others alluded to the “top four processing firms” that they feel are taking advantage of farmers and ranchers.
According to a fact sheet on Biden’s latest decision to unveil The Biden-Harris Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain, “Four large meat-packing companies control 85 percent of the beef market. In poultry, the top four processing firms control 54 percent of the market. And in pork, the top four processing firms control about 70 percent of the market.” Much of the panel was about making a more equitable meat and poultry industry by incentivizing farmers and ranchers with various funding options to expand or build new facilities and research new ways of doing business. Little was said about the most marginalized workforce included in that industry, save for promises of potential great wages for those in rural communities and additional training for workers. “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” Biden said at one point.
Instead, much was said about how those four big companies are screwing over meat and poultry suppliers, grocery stores, and consumers. According to Biden, the cost of 1 pound of hamburger meat now costs more than $5—a substantial rise compared with the pre-pandemic price of less than $4 per pound. The price for ground beef today is definitely on the higher side compared with the latest numbers from the Department of Labor, which shows that ground beef was indeed slightly less than $4 per pound in March 2020 but has since spiked and fluctuated to an average price of around $4.70 in November 2021. Vilsack announced the many ways that the American Rescue Plan will help the industry, including allocating an $800 million commitment for grants and loans meant to address capacity, workforce, and innovation challenges at facilities. For the first phase of the project, Vilsack hopes at least 15 projects will be funded through a $150 million grant project for new proposals. An additional $275 million will be provided to lending partners for loans for new facilities.
The new “Product of USA” labeling rules to be created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could certainly incentivize meatpackers to do more business with U.S.-based farms and ranches, as the current regulations allow for meat to bear the “Product of USA” label no matter where the meat is raised, so long as it’s processed in the U.S. Biden, Vilsack, and Garland reiterated multiple times that the main issue is a lack of competition due to monopolies like the Big Four companies dominating the industry. Taking better care of ranchers and farmers who are committed to the legacy of their farms and yearn for the heyday of the industry ignores all the damage the meat and poultry industry has done to its workers and beyond. Agriculture accounted for 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, with the cattle industry being one of the main polluters. According to a paper published in 2017, researchers found that even living near a large-scale farm led to more risks of infection for residents.
Innovations could greatly reduce the environmental impact of farming, but that still doesn’t account for the grim conditions that have made the meat and poultry industry especially dangerous for workers throughout the pandemic. The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by lawmakers are likely lower than in reality, as it’s nearly impossible to calculate the amount of undocumented immigrant workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), there is no federal or state data that accurately reveals how many undocumented workers are employed in the meat and poultry industry, in part because of many undocumented folks are fearful of responding to surveys like the census’ American Community Survey. The nonprofit think tank believes the data available shows a severe undercounting of the industry’s undocumented workers and offers little information in terms of demographics. Inaccurate employee counts, shoddy reporting from facilities, and minimal penalties when workers’ rights are violated disincentivize companies to make meaningful changes to ensure employees are being paid fairly in a safe environment.
There seems to be nothing in Biden’s latest push for reform that addresses these issues. To the administration, it appears that the buck stops at ranchers and farmers, many of whom have benefited from the country’s systemic racism. Looking solely at farmers from a wider lens of agriculture as a whole, white farmers make up well over 85% of producers in the U.S., according to an Eater article published in 2019. Discriminatory legislation like the Homestead Act largely benefited white Americans, while other laws like the California Alien Land Law of 1913 outright banned certain minority groups from owning land at all. It took until 1952 for the Supreme Court of California invalidate the California Alien Land Law, which had been upheld by multiple courts prior to that moment. It is absolutely time we rethink how the meat and poultry industry does business as well as agriculture as a whole. Plus, switching to a vegetarian diet does help reduce emissions, albeit only slightly—it’s still on giant polluters like those Big Four companies and other corporations in even more damaging industries to look towards greener solutions. What does a more ethical, greener meat and poultry industry look like to you? Or should it simply be abolished?
Article reprinted with permission from Daily Kos