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Meat prices spike, cattle prices fall, and ranchers and lawmakers see market manipulation

Cattle prices have plummeted since January, putting many ranchers on the brink of collapse.

Wholesale beef prices have jumped to record levels, as shoppers stockpile meat in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. But this run on beef isn’t helping cattle ranchers. On the contrary, cattle prices have plummeted since January, putting many ranchers on the brink of collapse. “It’s never been worse. The futures market is crashing … and box beef prices are skyrocketing. It’s nuts,” says rancher Mike Callicrate of St. Francis, Kansas.

Callicrate and other ranchers say this illogical price collapse reflects meatpackers’ monopoly power to set cattle prices. Before this shock, the top four beef packers already faced litigation and a Department of Agriculture investigation for alleged collusion and price-fixing.

Lawmakers from both parties are calling on the USDA to take more immediate action and for the Department of Justice to open an antitrust investigation of its own.

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“We’re seeing some pretty bad stuff in the livestock market right now,” Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) told the Billings Gazette. “Somebody is taking advantage of the situation. And I think that ‘somebody’ is industrial packers.”

“The packers seem to be making out like bandits, and our producers are seeing record-low prices,” Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) also told the Gazette, after asking the Justice Department to open an antitrust investigation into the beef industry. “I think we’ve got an issue with monopolies here.”

Coronavirus panic shopping has prompted an unprecedented spike in the prices wholesalers and supermarkets are paying for processed beef, which have increased nearly 20% in just four days, although those higher prices have yet to be passed on to consumers. At the same time, slaughter-ready cattle prices are down 11% since January, and cattle futures have lost nearly a quarter of their value since then.

Prices paid to ranchers could fall even further if workers at meatpacking plants fall sick or stay home and facilities begin to slow production or shut down. Ranchers got a taste of just this kind of slaughter disruption last summer, when a fire took out one of Tyson’s beef processing plants and created a glut of slaughter-ready cattle. Packers made a then-record $415 per head, up from around $150 before the fire, while cattle producers lost an average of $200 per head.

“If the coronavirus impacts these plants and they have to shut down, then we’ve got a real disaster on our hands, with just a handful of plants being able to kill the nation’s cattle,” says Callicrate. He notes that if there were a more diverse network of local, smaller-scale meat processors, then any individual pandemic-related plant closure “would have a lot less impact.”

While ranchers fear the worst, meatpackers have reaped record profit margins from both the Tyson fire and now the coronavirus pandemic, and ranchers are raising concerns about market manipulation. Just four dominant corporations buy 85% of all beef in the U.S., and ranchers say that these behemoths can collude to manipulate cattle markets and hold down the prices paid to ranchers.

Top packers Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods, and National Beef were not immediately available for comment.

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Almost a year ago, several Midwestern feedlot owners and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the four dominant beef packers had strategically cut back on open market cattle bids, closed plants, and imported costly foreign cattle, in order to lower spot market cattle values. This case has been consolidated with two similar suits brought by consumers and wholesale beef buyers.

Following the Tyson fire, the USDA began investigating the unprecedented packer profits to determine whether there was “any evidence of price manipulation, collusion, restrictions of competition, or other unfair practices” enabling the profits. At a recent appropriations hearing, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told senators that he wanted more tools to address potential market rigging.

The coronavirus shock puts new pressure on the USDA to wrap up its investigation and take action against packer profiteering. In a letter to Perdue, Tester cited “rapid consolidation of the industry” as a key issue facing ranchers and urged the USDA to act immediately to support cattle producers. “Your actions now could make the difference between folks going broke or staying in the industry for another generation,” Tester wrote.

Tester introduced a bill on March 20 that would set a guaranteed base price on feeder and fattened cattle. The government would make up any difference in base price for sales of up to 10,000 cattle, in order to prevent large feedlots from disproportionately benefiting over independent producers.

Daines joined Senate Republicans Michael Rounds of South Dakota, and Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, both from North Dakota, in requesting that the Justice Department open an antitrust investigation into price-fixing by beef packers. “At a time when cattle producers are seeing record losses and bankruptcies, now exacerbated by the COVID-19, compared to the shelf price of meat at record highs — these margins fail to make sense,” the senators wrote on March 19.

Perdue took to Twitter on March 23 to assure farmers that the agency is “paying special attention to the difference in prices from the farm gate to the grocery shelf” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, ranchers want to see more systemic changes to the livestock industry after the pandemic. “Hopefully we come out of this thing with more awareness of the importance of local regional food systems and just kill the monopolies,” says Callicrate. R-CALF urged the USDA to limit contracted beef purchases to preserve competitive cattle bidding, and requested mandatory country of origin labeling, in addition to emergency stopgap measures.

Claire Kelloway, a reporter and policy analyst with the Open Markets Institute, runs the Food & Power site, where this story was first published.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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