I watched "Food, Inc." recently and was surprised by how animals were treated and meat was produced in America. This seems crazy to me. Why can’t we get meat from better sources?

June 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

I watched Food, Inc. recently and was surprised by how animals were treated and meat was produced in America. This seems crazy to me. Why can't we get meat from better sources?

Aliza B.
Minneapolis, MN

Many people don’t like thinking about where their meat comes from. As our culture becomes increasingly separated from the realities of farm life, Americans have little sense of what the bulk of meat production looks like today. Yet there are growing concerns among many about the quality and conditions in which our meat is produced and the impact on our health, our environment and on family farmers.

To get to the bottom of your question, Aliza, we have to examine the powerful corporate players that dictate every detail of how livestock are raised and meat is produced. Their power not only fosters the system of meat production that you saw in Food, Inc., but also makes it nearly impossible for farmers to find markets where they can sell the meat they raise.

Down on the farm

The story of our meat, like all food, starts on the farm.

Livestock production is generally divided into three main stages: breeding, feeding and slaughtering. Traditionally, different actors managed each of these stages. For example, ranchers bred and grazed cattle on their land before sending them to cattle-feeding operators, or “finishers,” who fattened them on grain for several months. In the last stage, cattle were sold to beef-packing firms that slaughtered and processed beef for consumers. These stages were more or less the same in hog and poultry production.

But over time, each of these stages experienced huge changes. At the farm level, the number of farms decreased rapidly, particularly when dips in market prices forced livestock farmers out of business. Since 1985, the year of the first Farm Aid concert, America has lost a whopping 552,780 cattle ranchers, a drop of more than 37 percent. During that same time, more than 319,000 hog farmers were forced out of business, a loss of more than 82 percent.

The loss of these farms contributed to overall industry consolidation, including the development of ever-larger concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly called factory farms. In CAFOs, hundreds, and often thousands, of animals are kept indoors in crowded quarters. CAFOs have not only been criticized for jeopardizing animal health, but also for harming public health, the environment and the rural landscape, and for eroding rural economies.

At the same time livestock farms were going out of business, meatpacking firms and poultry processors started buying up companies along the supply chain. This gave companies greater power to control not only the processing and packaging of meat products, but also the raising of livestock. Very few markets are available for the great majority of today’s livestock producers and most must rely on contracts with corporations to sell their products at all. In the pork and poultry industries especially, these contracts dictate the conditions in which the animals, many of which are now owned by the corporations, must be raised.

How bad is it? Today, just four companies control 83.5% of the beef market, 66% of the hog industry, and 58.5% of the broiler industry. Economists have warned that these conditions leave meat markets ripe for manipulation and abuse.

From bad to ugly

Controversy is not new to the meatpacking industry. In the early 20th century, meatpacking plants were notorious for abysmal hygiene and labor conditions. Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel, The Jungle, revealed a stomach-turning picture of Chicago’s meatpacking giants. It sparked a public outcry that resulted in the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which ensures better inspection and safety protocols in meat production.

Strong evidence of market abuses toward family farmers also emerged. Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act in1921, making it illegal for meatpackers, poultry processors and other corporations that contract with farmers to engage in “unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive” practices or to give “undue or unreasonable preference or advantage” to one farmer or rancher over another. It was a landmark piece of legislation in leveling the playing field between farmers and meatpackers.

But the situation has gotten worse, not better, for livestock farmers and ranchers. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who was charged with enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act, never clarified just what constitutes deceptive practices or unreasonable preference, the law remained woefully powerless in addressing abuses. What’s worse, more often than not, the USDA looked the other way as corporate abuses continued, as the industry consolidated, as droves of family farmers and ranchers were forced out of businesses and as factory farms multiplied.

What's Next

The first glimmer of hope in nearly 90 years appeared in the 2008 Farm Bill, which required USDA to further define the Packers and Stockyards Act and ensure protections for family farmers and ranchers. Last year, USDA issued a rule—called the “GIPSA” rule—that does exactly this.

Yet corporate meat and poultry giants have been kicking and screaming, launching misinformation campaigns and generally doing all they can to prevent stronger protections for family farmers. Many of the family farmers and organizations Farm Aid has worked with for decades call this battle the most important one family farm agriculture faces. A better, healthier system of agriculture that provides a fair living for family farmers depends on fair, competitive markets and this rule could help make fair markets possible.

It isn't enough for us to vote with our dollars, we have to raise our voices. Farm Aid, with your help, recently joined several organizations in calling on President Obama to stand up for family farmers after the House of Representatives moved to defund and dismantle the GIPSA rule completely. This summer, the U.S. Senate will debate the GIPSA rule and they need to hear the message that family farmers deserve a fair shake in the market. We’ll keep you posted throughout the summer to let you know what you can do to get the word out that family farmers deserve a level playing field and we need the GIPSA rule to help make that happen.

Another glimmer of hope appeared in the series of workshops that were held in 2010 by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice to take a look at competition issues in all the agricultural industries, from seeds to poultry to livestock. Neither the USDA nor the DOJ has followed up on those workshops, more than a year after they started. Farm groups continue to call for the USDA and DOJ to make good on all they learned at those workshops, where livestock and poultry producers stood up to make known the market abuses they suffer.

If we want a family farm system of agriculture that delivers good food and treats our family farmers fairly, there is much work to do. And to get it done, each of us is going to have to fight corporate power in our food system and beyond. We hope we can count on all of you, because as Willie says, “We all eat!”

Further Reading

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