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A steer awaits slaughter in Bowlus, Minnesota.

Beyond Big Meat

Just six companies control two-thirds of the nation's meat production. It's time to end their monopoly of our food supply.

A steer awaits slaughter in Bowlus, Minnesota.

The hogs screech as the barn fills with steam. Thousands jostle and shriek. It takes hours, but eventually they quiet and then collapse. By morning, their bodies cover the floor. Survivors snort and squeal weakly through the haze, until two workers, using captive-bolt guns, put them down. At the end, a John Deere track loader is brought in to scoop up carcasses and carry them off.

The video, shot in May on a hidden camera installed by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere at a rural facility owned by Iowa Select Farms, captures what the meat industry calls “ventilation shutdown plus.” Under this protocol, workers herd animals into an insulated barn, turn off manure pit fans and the outside ventilation system, and then—the “plus”—pump in carbon dioxide and scalding steam. Overnight, temperatures exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit, as toxic fumes rise and condense in the fog-choked air. The barn becomes a poison sauna. “Animals die,” according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “from some combination of hyperthermia, carbon dioxide, and other gases that quickly accumulate in the barns.”

As ghastly as the scene captured in the Iowa Select video may be, it’s not so much proof of a single act of cruelty as evidence of 50 years of collective decision-making by the meatpacking industry and its government regulators alike, a consensus that has always worked to favor the efficiencies (and profits) of concentration and consolidation over the resiliency of distributed production. Iowa Select is the largest pork producer in the largest pork-producing state, delivering roughly 100,000 hogs to market every week, and all of those pigs are raised under exclusive contract to just two companies—America’s two largest meat-packers, Tyson and JBS. So in the third week of April, when Tyson confirmed more than 1,000 cases of Covid-19 among its packinghouse workers in Waterloo, Iowa, and the JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, simultaneously confirmed nearly 800 cases, forcing both to close down for two weeks, Iowa Select found itself with tens of thousands of hogs and nowhere to send them. Independent producers may be small enough to “stuff every barn full of pigs,” as one farmer put it, for a week or even two, but large-scale operations like Iowa Select, under contract to one or more of the country’s six giant meat-packers, have little leeway in how to raise their animals.

Contract agreements with those six packers—Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, Cargill, National Beef, and Hormel—provide producers with the security of knowing they have a buyer for their finished livestock from the moment they’re conceived, but that guarantee comes with extraordinary conditions. In order for meat-packers to capture the efficiencies of specialized, high-speed equipment at their large plants, they require farmers to have a precise number of animals ready on a particular week at an exact weight, and often those animals must meet even more refined specifications, such as thickness and distribution of fat. For packers, however, contracts rarely come with conditions—not even for unforeseen circumstances such as their own plant closures. One small farmer in Minnesota complained to the Organization for Competitive Markets about just such a problem with the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The company had contracted to buy his finished hogs for 38 cents per pound. When the plant closed in April amid more than 850 cases of Covid-19, it couldn’t receive his hogs for more than two weeks. When it reopened, and he began delivering loads, his hogs were over the contracted weight, so he was docked 20 cents per pound—significantly cutting into, if not eliminating, his profit.

As thousands of farmers found themselves in a similar bind, many chose to cut their losses. “Covid-19 has completely disrupted our food supply chain,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said in May, “and that’s forcing pork producers to make gut-wrenching decisions.” Rather than paying for additional weeks of feed, only to be docked by big packers, farmers began to mass-slaughter their hogs, and the industry expects to cull more than 10 million in all by year’s end. The methods approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for such large-scale culling are often deeply troubling. Besides ventilation shutdown, millions of adult hogs have been shot or given lethal injections; piglets have been gassed or “thumped”—swinging newborns by the hind legs and smashing their skulls against a barn’s concrete floor. Pregnant sows have been aborted. And it’s not just hogs. In recent weeks, millions of hens have been gassed or doused in foam until they drown. Iowa State University has a hotline to help farmers cope with PTSD and depression as the logic of the food supply chain turns against them.

“Big operations are extremely cost efficient,” wrote Temple Grandin, a longtime proponent of humane animal handling, in a recent op-ed for Forbes. “The downside is the fragility of the supply chains, as Covid-19 proves. This pandemic is going to be a wakeup call.” As farmers across the country see “herd-thinning” expand into cattle feedlots, and as the losses for rural communities mount, many are asking whether the entire system needs dramatic reform. In late June, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey announced an investigation into the large meat-packers, questioning their “commitment to providing a safe, affordable, and abundant food supply to the nation.” A tight network of smaller producers, they argue, could help ensure that our food economy is more equitable for farmers, safer for packinghouse workers, and, for consumers, more resilient and reliable in the face of crisis. The current pandemic underscores that broader argument for a new system of meat production and distribution. Droving nearly six billion animals, some two-thirds of the total number of livestock slaughtered in the United States each year, onto the kill floors of barely 100 meatpacking plants owned by just six companies not only creates an impassable bottleneck; it has also produced a potential national security threat should our food supply chain experience a sustained disruption.

The current system, however, didn’t evolve by accident—and it is important to recognize that it was never intended to protect the American consumer, much less the American farmer or the American worker. To change, it will require nothing short of breaking up the Big Six and enforcing antitrust laws to their fullest extent. More than that, though, it will take a cultural change, in which we, as eaters, no longer see issues of labor, on the farm or the factory floor, as separate from questions of what is on our forks, and how it got there.

Hogs on Bernie Herickhoff’s Minnesota farm lost value as they gained weight during Covid-related delivery delays.
Photograph by Ackerman + Gruber for The New Republic

From the very dawn of the industrial meat era, going all the way back to when Upton Sinclair started serializing his novel The Jungle in 1905, the American public has appeared unmoved by labor abuses in the meat industry. Basing his book on two months in the Packingtown district of Chicago near the old Union Stock Yards, Sinclair graphically portrayed the killing floors at Armour and Swift, where supervisors moved through each room with a watch, pressing cutters to work faster while they increased the pace of the production chain. “The speeding-up seemed to be growing more savage all the time,” Sinclair wrote, but his readers were less concerned by the dehumanizing treatment of workers or the inhumane handling of livestock than the possible contamination of their meat. When President Theodore Roosevelt took up the cause of reform, Sinclair wrote, it was not “because the public cared anything about the sufferings of these workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”

As a consequence, after the Supreme Court ruled in Swift & Co. v. United States that the federal government had antitrust jurisdiction over the interstate activities of big packers, Congress used that power to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906—measures aimed at consumer protection—but did nothing to reform labor practices in the packinghouses. Sinclair complained that the new laws were “written by the packers” and “paid for by the people of the United States for the benefit of the packers.” Nothing would be truly reformed, least of all for workers. Theodore Roosevelt, among other influential critics, dismissed Sinclair’s complaints as “hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful” because they failed, as Roosevelt derisively put it, to consider “the marvelous business efficiency” of the big packers. “‘The Jungle’ caused the whitewashing of some packing-house walls,” Sinclair wrote in 1920, “but it left the wage-slaves in those huge brick packing-boxes exactly where they were before.”

By then, the Federal Trade Commission had concluded a new investigation of the big packers—a two-year inquiry ordered by President Woodrow Wilson “to ascertain the facts bearing on the alleged violations of the anti-trust acts, and particularly upon the question whether there are manipulations, controls, trusts, combinations, or restraints out of harmony with the law or the public interest.” In damning detail, the commission concluded that the big packers not only had “a monopolistic control over the American meat industry” but also were moving fast into eggs, cheese, fish, and vegetable oil. And they were trying to take over not only “nearly every kind of foodstuff” but also control of supporting industries—stockyards, shipping and refrigeration cars, cold storage, and warehouses. “Elaborate steps have been taken to disguise their real relations by maintaining a show of intense competition,” the report concluded—but by maintaining two-thirds to three-quarters control of all markets, the big packers were able to effectively restrain free trade by colluding against farmers and price-fixing to defraud consumers.

Rather than indicting the presidents of the five corporations named in the FTC report, however, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer entered into a landmark consent decree, compelling the meat companies to divest from other food sectors as well as from supporting industries along the supply chain. Congress subsequently passed the Packers and Stockyards Act, legally enshrining that agreement. The arrangement held for 50 years. “From 1920 to the present date,” concluded a study of deconcentration in the meatpacking industry in 1971, “limited ability to use anti-competitive forms of conduct” caused the largest companies “to lose market shares continually to regional firms in a process that can and should be called market competition.” Over that same period, conditions and wages improved considerably for meatpacking workers, livestock farmers and ranchers received increased prices, and the cost of food for consumers actually went down relative to hourly wages. But at precisely the moment that the study appeared, the systematic effort to unravel antitrust measures was beginning.

That transformation was rooted in a philosophy of intentional agricultural overproduction advocated by Earl L. Butz, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture. Butz embraced deregulation and market concentration as a way to prop up industrial-scale agriculture, in order to artificially depress food prices worldwide—a strategy aimed at increasing American soft power on the world stage. In short order, the federal government went from policing food trusts at home to running an international food ring, intended to undercut our Communist competitors. Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department fortified this system in the 1980s, when it loosened standards for approving mergers under the 1920 consent decree. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cargill, Inc. v. Monfort of Colorado, Inc. that demonstrating a “price-cost squeeze” for farmers or even collusion between packers did not constitute an antitrust monopoly unless their market share were large enough “to succeed in a sustained campaign of predatory pricing” such that, per the established antitrust standard, competitors “actually are driven from the market and competition is thereby lessened.”

The effect of these initiatives to tighten top-down market control of the U.S. food supply is hard to overstate. In 1972, there were nearly 3,000 packinghouses operating in the United States. Twenty years later, that number had plummeted to fewer than 200. At the start of the Reagan administration, there were roughly 600,000 hog operations nationwide. Twenty years later, there were only about 80,000 left. And those who managed to hold on were often in desperate shape. By 2001, an estimated 71 percent of chicken farmers were at or below the poverty line. Eventually, those farmers started filing antitrust suits under the Packers and Stockyards Act, and the 2008 Farm Bill required federal regulators to revisit the standards for antitrust enforcement in the food economy. The DOJ and the USDA held joint hearings and proposed rule changes to make it easier for farmers to sue over anti-competitive practices and antitrust market advantages. But the meat and poultry industry successfully lobbied to remove language from the rule about price-fixing, and Congress defunded implementation of the change through an appropriations rider—and has repeatedly done so ever since. Only when the Organization for Competitive Markets, a livestock farmer advocacy group, filed suit against the Trump USDA did the DOJ finally agree to investigate unfair practices and undue influences in the meat industry before the end of 2020.

Then came the pandemic. By the middle of March, meat-packers across the country were seeing more and more of their workers calling in sick. Employees, too, were noticing fewer cars in the parking lot and gaps on the production line. But nearly 80 percent of frontline meatpacking jobs are occupied by immigrants, refugees, or people of color. Because more than half are non-native English speakers, union meetings and newsletters have been replaced with informal networks in dozens of different languages; word of changes to their work routines often travels slowly. Packing companies strongly discourage line workers from missing days for injury or illness, and line jobs are among the most dangerous in America, so even under such pressure, work absences are far from uncommon. Besides, most Midwestern and Southern states, where packing plants are concentrated, still had fewer than a handful of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the early spring, so at first no one paid much attention to co-workers with a cough or a low-grade fever. During the week of March 16, however, Midwestern governors began instructing public schools to close. Workers with children suddenly had to find daytime childcare, and many also began hearing from their kids about social distancing.

That same week, Smithfield Foods chief executive Kenneth Sullivan sent a heated letter to Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. Smithfield employees, Sullivan wrote, “work in close proximity to each other and are increasingly asking one question: ‘Why are we here?’ This is a direct result of the government continually reiterating the importance of social distancing.” Sullivan asked that the governor’s future communications be “carefully crafted to exclude agriculture and food industry workers.” He also insisted that “government leaders, at all levels, have to understand social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.” If Ricketts didn’t specifically “call out” food production as an essential industry, he maintained, then there was a high risk that Smithfield employees would “stop showing up for work,” pushing the whole country to “the precipice of a major societal disaster.”

Had Smithfield begun installing dividers between workstations and issuing personal protective equipment (PPE) to its employees early on instead of contesting the need for social distancing, it might have saved its workers considerable harm and severely curtailed community spread in several Midwestern states. Instead, on April 8, more than 80 Smithfield workers in the plant in Sioux Falls tested positive. The company announced that it would close down within the week, but over those next few days, the number of confirmed cases climbed and climbed, from 80 to 190 to 238. By the time Smithfield finally shuttered the plant in mid-April, it had become the top Covid-19 hot spot in the country, with a cluster of 644 confirmed cases among its employees and people who had been in contact with them. Workers told the BBC that the rapid spread would have been preventable had Smithfield not ignored employee requests for PPE, not insisted that sick workers remain on the line, and not withheld information about the spread of the virus at its facilities. At the time, Smithfield claimed that masks and other PPE had been difficult to source because of “the stress on supply chains.”

In reality, the relevant stresses on the supply chain were created by Smithfield management. Over the decades-long deregulatory turn in the meatpacking economy, the big packers have exploited a whole array of incentives to create artificial bottlenecks in the middle of a large and complex supply chain, in order to maximize efficiency and profit. This means, among other things, that even brief disruptions in production can lead to catastrophic effects on either side of the logjam. Sullivan warned Governor Ricketts that temporary shutdown orders “could lead to social unrest” due to food shortages. “It will be a calamity,” he said. Ricketts clearly took the warning to heart. When asked about the prospect of closing meatpacking plants as the crisis unfolded, he echoed Sullivan’s letter. “Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products. Think about if they couldn’t get food,” he told reporters. “It’s vitally important that we keep our food processors open and do everything we can to ensure the supply chain, because we would have civil unrest if that was not the case.”

This prospect appears to have been a hollow threat all along. The New York Times reported in mid-June that even as Smithfield, which was purchased by a Chinese company in 2013 with backing from the Chinese government, was raising the specter of lockdown-induced food shortages to justify keeping its facilities open, the company was actually exporting 9,000 tons of pork to China in April—one of the meat-packer’s highest shipments to that market in years. Tyson saw its largest one-month export of pork to China in more than three years—and received several exemptions from the USDA to run its processing lines even faster. JBS posted a 332 percent increase in profits in the spring quarter. All that cash stabilized uncertain stock prices for those meat companies.

Meanwhile, the situation inside the facilities worsened. Crowded plants, with processing lines running so fast that workers often didn’t have time to cover their coughs or sneezes, quickly spread the virus. Amid growing national shortages of sanitary goods, plants ran out of hand sanitizer. Nervous workers scrubbed vigorously after any breaks, until plant bathrooms even ran out of soap. One plant in Omaha, Nebraska, obtained basic PPE, but workers told the Omaha World-Herald that they had to buy it from the company—50 cents a mask and $12.50 for a box of rubber gloves. In other plants, managers offered no protective measures at all. When the county sheriff investigated claims of an outbreak at the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in April, he said he found employees packed along the line, working elbow to elbow. The New York Times reported that those who had any face coverings “wore a motley assortment of bandannas, painters’ masks or even sleep masks stretched around their mouths.”

Even as the number of positive workers continued to climb, packers strong-armed state-level officials and union stewards into relaxing restrictions. In Kansas, text messages and emails obtained through a public records request by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle revealed that executives at Tyson and National Beef repeatedly pushed Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to relax quarantine requirements for meatpacking workers. Indeed, both firms eventually obtained permission to put employees who had potentially been exposed to the virus back on the line. When the union president representing JBS employees at its plant in Greeley, Colorado, told a local news station that she thought ordering employees back to work “could potentially be a death sentence,” she received a cease-and-desist letter from JBS threatening legal action and accusing her of attempting to “extort additional benefits” from JBS in the form of “specific safety protocols and health measures.”

Just days later, John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post. “The food supply chain is breaking,” he warned. “Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.” The claim that worker safety is Tyson’s topmost concern appears objectively false, but the letter achieved its most immediate goal: Two days later, the White House announced that President Donald J. Trump would sign an executive order, invoking the Defense Production Act, to compel meat processors to remain open, heading off shortages in the nation’s food supply. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would make it a priority to protect plants from liability by preventing workers and their families from suing should they fall sick or die. The eventual order, signed on April 28, fell well short of these promises, but the industry had the cover it needed.

By the following week, shuttered packing plants began reopening. However, a study soon found that the cases of Covid-19 in counties with meatpacking plants jumped to roughly double the national average during the period immediately following the facilities’ reopening. As of mid-July, more than 37,000 meatpacking workers had tested positive and 168 had died, according to data tracked by the Food & Environment Reporting Network. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, promptly sought to shift blame for the spike on to workers, not the shoddy conditions at Smithfield. “We believe that 99 percent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility,” Noem said. “It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus because a lot of these folks that work at this plant live in the same community, the same building, sometimes in the same apartment.” On May 7, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from the beef packing town of Dodge City, Kansas, echoed the same fanciful narrative: “The CEOs really stepped up,” he said. “The problem is our workers…. They are not catching the virus at the meatpacking plant. It’s afterwards … when they leave the plant and then head home.”

“The food system we have is not the result of the free market,” Michael Pollan wrote recently in The New York Review of Books. “No, our food system is the product of agricultural and antitrust policies—political choices—that, as has suddenly become plain, stand in urgent need of reform.” Eric Schlosser, writing for The Atlantic, made an even more specific call for “strict antitrust enforcement that will rid the food system of monopoly and monopsony power, ensure competition, and encourage the innovation that free-market forces produce.” By June, that growing chorus of concern grew so loud that the Department of Justice, in a wholly uncharacteristic move, came forward to announce a series of ongoing investigations.

First, Justice officials revealed that the chief executive officer and a former senior vice president at Pilgrim’s Pride, a poultry producer owned by JBS, along with two top executives at Claxton Poultry, had been indicted for an antitrust conspiracy to fix prices. Tyson had agreed to cooperate with that investigation as part of a leniency application. Next, the department issued civil subpoenas to the four biggest beef processors—JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef—seeking information about possible collusion in that market, as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, JBS and Tyson were also asked to produce documents related to their pork-processing operations, again to investigate possible antitrust violations. With at least four of the Big Six packers currently under federal scrutiny and indictments already coming down, there seems a greater chance now of establishing market equity in the top-heavy meatpacking economy than at any other time in the last century. Fully enforcing antitrust laws to break up the twenty-first–century meat trust would go a long way toward restoring the resiliency of distributed production and returning to the fair and transparent marketplace that existed for half a century before the era of consolidation.

But the need for reform of the food supply chain is far more broad-ranging than questions of targeted regulatory enforcement. The age of Covid-19 has revealed profound rifts in our culture concerning food production and distribution—rifts that must be bridged by more than purely economic fixes. Policymakers and consumers alike must reflect on how we have come to collectively accept a food system that is largely based on racial and ethnic discrimination. In a country with a legacy of plantation slavery, perhaps this should come as no surprise. But it’s incompatible with the free society that we claim to embrace. During this pandemic, the White House has declared all food system employees—from farm fields to factory floors to grocery aisles to restaurant kitchens—to be essential workers. But if food workers are indeed essential to our national survival, then we owe them a living wage, paid sick leave, and a safe work environment. We can no longer shrug off the meat industry’s high rates of injury, amputation, and illness as the necessary trade-off for cheap hamburgers and chicken nuggets. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be allowed full access to packinghouse workers, and the meat inspectors of the USDA, as well as the packinghouse workers themselves, should be granted a louder voice in determining safe line speeds.

Other cultural changes will have to go deeper than policy. Since the beginning of the great consolidation in the 1980s, meatpacking plants across middle America turned to refugees and immigrants to fill these dangerous and low-paid jobs. First, it was refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Then the industry saw an influx of Mexican immigrants, when NAFTA led to a rapid devaluation of the peso that hit hardest in rural communities across the border. The creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a series of high-profile raids in the mid-2000s changed hiring yet again in ways that further diversified—and fractured—the meatpacking workforce. Today, meatpacking workers may be K’iche’-speaking Mayas from the central highlands of Guatemala; Salvadorans fleeing urban gangs; Karen people from Myanmar, many of whom grew up in refugee camps along the Thai border; Somalis, most of whom come from war-torn Mogadishu by way of the Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya; and Yazidi from Iraq and Syria, who served as interpreters for the U.S. military.

Consumers will have to understand that the routine endangerment and abuse of these workers can no longer be the hidden cost of cheap meat. Indeed, if we can escape the stranglehold of the Big Six’s ruthless profit motive, then we can ensure fair treatment for these workers and sustainable profits for a larger group of small packers without increases in the price of food. Farmers, ranchers, and residents of rural communities must recognize that such a change will also bring them fairer livestock contracts and higher prices. They must resist the politics of division and recognize that they have common cause with meatpacking workers, even though they may look different, pray different, or speak a different language. An emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic should make it clearer than ever that our interests and our fates are interwoven. In a just world, that would mean immediate citizenship for any undocumented immigrants who have put their lives at risk as essential workers during this pandemic. President Trump is fond of saying that this crisis is a war—that he is a wartime president and that frontline workers are warriors. Since the founding of the country, we have granted citizenship to any foreign national willing to fight on our side. If you worked at a meatpacking plant or in a farm field, on a grocery loading dock or in a restaurant kitchen, during this once-in-a-century crisis, seeing that our nation was fed, then you should be assured a share of our national future.

And, finally, as we build a new food system adapted to the demands of the future, we must seek out production methods that are not only equitable but sustainable. Climate change not only accelerates under conditions of monopoly food cultivation and processing but also inserts new communities of migrant workers into the food economy. Our current obstacles will only grow more unmanageable if we don’t address them now. It’s time for us to invest seriously in new ways of farming and eating that can allow us to share precious resources and live better together. It’s an admittedly formidable challenge—but it’s possible, if we open our food system to innovation and forward-thinking models of production and distribution. It’s possible if we break up the stunting monopolies of big meat.