David Wainer: Only big government can tamp down rising price of meat

In 1977, the largest four beef-packing firms controlled just 25% of the market, compared with 82% today. The market share of the big four — JBS SA, Cargill, National Beef and Tyson – has given them outsize power in setting beef prices.

A man shops in the meat section at a grocery store on April 28, 2020, Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS

The Biden administration desperately needs a win on inflation, and cutting the price Americans pay for beef would have an immediate impact on most families.

Yet the prescription unveiled by the White House last week to boost competition in the highly concentrated meat sector, while prudent, won’t make much of a dent on meat prices, at least not for a while. It isn’t likely to help fight inflation, either. No wonder shares of Tyson Foods Inc., a big producer of beef and pork as well as chicken, have risen more than 4% since the plan was announced.

Meat prices have been soaring — accounting for more than half the increase in grocery costs for American families. The blame for this, according to the administration, belongs with the four companies that together control more than 80% of the meatpacking market. The White House has been focused on this industry for months, arguing that excessive concentration is hurting consumers, who are paying more for their steaks and burgers, as well as small ranchers and farmers, who have struggled to stay profitable.

The push to inject competition into meatpacking is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to challenge concentrations of power in business, in industries ranging from technology to railroads to health care. Under the plan, the administration will spend $1 billion to help independent meat processing companies expand their operations and hire additional workers

Yet it will take a while before the promised funds have any impact. For one, like much of the U.S. economy, the meat industry is dealing with a shortage of workers, which will make it challenging for smaller competitors to scale up without raising wages.


“You have 4 (million) to 5 million people missing from the workforce, and working in a slaughterhouse is not exactly a desirable job,’’ said Rodrigo Almeida, a Santander Bank analyst who follows meatpackers. “You can put as much money as you want to work, but if there’s no labor it’s hard to make these plans work.”

It also is up for debate whether fighting monopolies is the best way to tame inflation. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers took to Twitter recently to say that the administration’s efforts could have the opposite effect, by discouraging investment that could boost supply. A better approach to keep prices in check, Summers suggests, would be to open up the market to international competition.

This is not to say that the meat market isn’t due for an overhaul. In 1977, the largest four beef-packing firms controlled just 25% of the market, compared with 82% today. The market share of the big four — JBS SA, Cargill, National Beef and Tyson – has given them outsize power in setting beef prices.

It’s something of a paradox that prices of packaged beef have skyrocketed even as cattle prices have fallen. Indeed, while the big meatpackers point to the increasing cost of everything from labor to trucks as the culprits for more expensive beef, their profit margins have risen substantially, too. In other words, all those costs, and then some, are being passed along to consumers.

This suggests that funneling money to smaller producers won’t help on its own. Tougher enforcement is needed too.

There are signs that more oversight is coming. The Biden administration is now working to issue stronger rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a law designed to combat abuses by meatpackers and processors. In 2019, R Calf USA, a group representing ranchers, sued the four big meatpackers, accusing them of engaging in price-fixing, a charge the companies deny. The case is still working its way through the courts. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has been looking into industry practices since 2020. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has started publishing prices that beef processors pay.

All these small steps could chip away at the big four. They might even slow the climb in meat prices. Just know you’ll still be paying more for burgers for some time to come.

David Wainer is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications. He has covered markets, health care, economics and international affairs for Bloomberg News.


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