Governments rally as meat-processing monopolies drain agricultural communities

ALBANY COUNTY – Soaring meat prices have taken a toll on local farmers. 

For that, blame meat monopolies. 

Both the federal and state government are working toward funding more local smaller-scale processing plants.

Much as the current baby formula shortage is the result of the screw-up of a single plant that produced 43 percent of the nation’s formula, the price of meat can partly be traced back to the coronavirus’s impact on the handful of companies that dominate the meat market.

The companies Tyson, JBS, Perdue, and Sanderson control 54 percent of all chicken processing in the United States, according to a May 12 report released by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, part of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef collectively control 85 percent of the beef market, the report says, while Smithfield, JBS, Tyson, and Hormel control 70 percent of the pork market. 

That’s four companies that control, in some cases, well over 50 percent of each top meat market. 

So, when the coronavirus raged through these companies’ workforces, infecting 59,000 workers in the first year of the pandemic (which occurred largely because those companies worked closely with government officials to avoid complying with safety regulations that they felt hindered their operations, the report says) all those who rely on those companies for their services were more or less helpless.

In January, Knox sheep farmer Gary Kleppel went before the Knox Town Board as chairman of the town’s agriculture committee to explain how local farmers were having trouble getting their meat processed because of the ills that befell those large companies. 

“In our town, and in our state, we’re experiencing a meat crisis … ” Kleppel said. “And one of the biggest problems is that you can’t get an appointment at a processing plant. We are short processing plants. And there’s even evidence that we’ve collected that, when the plants in the midwest, which were processing 200,000 animals a week, closed down, a lot of those animals ended up in the Northeast.”

A study published by Cornell Cooperative Extension states that there are around 300 processing facilities in New York State, but more than half of them are not inspected, meaning they only offer custom processing, which is when an animal is processed according to a direct consumer order and the meat cannot be offered for sale. 

Kleppel told the board that, if he can’t get a lamb processed efficiently, it eventually becomes a sheep, costing him revenue. 

“We lost a farm in Knox this year,” he said, due partly to the processing dilemma.

Government intervention, he suggested, would be crucial to the livelihoods of farmers. 

The numbers agree with Kleppel.

The Cornell study found that, while only 20.3 percent of “custom exempt” processing facilities would be interested in transitioning to an operation sanctioned by the United States Department of Agriculture without monetary assistance, more than 30 percent would be interested if they had assistance. An additional 8 percent who had said they were uninterested without funding would “maybe” be interested, with funding. 

Furthermore, while around 55 percent of USDA facilities are interested in expanding their capacity without funding, an additional 5 percent would consider an expansion with funding. 

Due to the challenges in the meat industry highlighted by the pandemic, the federal government invested $1 billion in growing and sustaining smaller-scale meat processing facilities, with a partial focus on those in underserved communities, so that the market is no longer under the influence of just a few companies. 

At the state level, Senator Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat who represents the 46th District and chairs the agriculture committee, announced that funding had been secured for a $5 million meat processing grant expansion program that has the same aim. 

She told The Enterprise earlier this month that the grant is currently in the hands of New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which is determining the parameters of the program.

“But the funding is there …, ” Hinchey said. “It’s something that they’re working on and they’ll hopefully have it up and running shortly.”

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