If there’s one good thing that’s come of the coronavirus crisis, it’s how quarantine has provided most Americans the luxury to spend more time cooking at home, grilling in the backyard, and trying out new recipes. Since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, meat department sales in grocery stores have surged.
This would be entirely good news if it weren’t for supply shortages and soaring prices.
Today, four major meat companies, known as “Big Four,” dominate the American meat market: JBS, National Beef, Tyson Foods, and Cargill. According to the Washington Post, “JBS and Tyson Foods control about 40 percent of the poultry market. And JBS and three other companies control nearly 70 percent of the pork market.”
These companies are selling meat at a higher price with little to no competition. Meanwhile, a handful of large multinational companies have a strong grip over the production, packing, and distribution of meat, with the blessing of the USDA and powerful interests on K Street.
Over the past several months, however, 20 major meatpacking plants temporarily shut down due to COVID concerns. The closures are not the only disruptions of the supply chain. Additional regulations on the meat market are driving prices higher—costs that many grocers are passing on to consumers. Right now, customers are paying more for beef than they have in decades, and summer discounts are sure to be scarce.
At least that means we’re taking care of our local farmers, right? Wrong. According to Politico, “the companies that process the meat for sale are paying farmers and ranchers staggeringly low prices for cattle.” Yet, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, meatpacking companies are running at a lower capacity because workers fall ill, less meat can be being processed.
As major meat companies shut down their facilities due to the COVID-19 outbreaks, the price of meat skyrocketed. “The food supply chain is breaking,” claimed Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted these defects in the meat market. As mounting shortages threaten the well-being of American families, Congress must take action and break down the barriers of competition.
One proposal for reform, spearheaded by Congressman Thomas Massie, himself a cattle-farmer in Kentucky, would allow farmers to utilize local butchers and processors to sell their products directly to consumers, without having to contend with burdensome federal regulations. Massie recently re-introduced the PRIME Act, to lift restrictions on meat processing plants that are currently restricted from supplying restaurants, schools, grocery stores, etc.
Today, small meat producers aren’t allowed to sell to grocery stores unless they have an in-house inspector. That’s an unnecessary restriction, as noted by Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club: “Under the PRIME Act, the small meat processing businesses would still be subject to unannounced USDA inspections, so there will be no effect on food quality standards.”
Massie criticized the big meat monopolies during an interview with BlazeTV, pointing out how federal regulations are perpetuating this problem: “The lobbyists for the big meatpackers, the four that control the industry right now, they want these regulations, they’d probably invite more regulations if they could because what they understand is that it keeps the small guys from competing.”
The bill would give authority back to states to facilitate intrastate meat distribution while allowing farms to sell their products to the customer directly within the state borders. This would reduce overhead and transportation costs, and would allow consumers to buy their preferred meat from their local farmers.
Hard-working Americans are losing out to monopolies, and there’s no good reason for it. Congressman Massie’s PRIME Act would do much to help reduce the bottlenecks in America’s meat supply and help to address the current shortage. Right now, many corporate lobbyists are fighting to maintain a status quo which would entail more shortages and price hikes eventually resulting in American families going hungry.
Massie’s bill has been introduced in 115th and 116th Congresses, and currently exists as identical House and Senate versions. With growing cosponsor support in both chambers, now is the time for Congress to take up the PRIME Act. The COVID-19 crisis will have long term impacts on the overall flow of goods and services. Only prompt action can stave off the coming crisis at the grocery store, and the tables of American families.