Ask Farm Aid | March 2, 2005

Who are the corporate players in the meat industry?

March 2005

Hi again!  Another great month. This time I spent most of my “Ask Laura” hours filtering through technical rules and regs and financial websites, feeling very much the part of a research maven!  We had some great questions this month but Michelle from Illinois picked one of my favorite topics.

A few years ago, I never would have pictured myself taking great delight in pouring over corporate mergers and frankly even knowing what parent companies were rearing what child companies…now I know they are called subsidiaries. One of my first assignments here at Farm Aid was to write a fact sheet on corporate concentration in agriculture. I was totally daunted but once that slight stomach ache subsided, it started to get really interesting.

So here we go: Michelle asked the not-so-simple question “who are the corporate players in the meat industry, what policies are regulating their behavior and what might they be getting away with?”

 

Dear Laura,

I just read an article published by the Organic Consumers Association that the administration signed an agreement so factory farms may violate the clean air standards, and that Tyson Foods will be reaping the benefits of this. I have known for a long time that Tyson was a “Factory Farm” type business, and try my best not to purchase their products. Could you please tell me if they have subsidiaries, or other businesses that belong to Tyson that I don’t know about.  I know Con Agra has tons of subsidiaries also. Is there somewhere that we could find out more of this information?

 

Hi Michelle,

Really good question! Untangling federal regulations or corporate chains of consolidation is no easy task!  Okay, the first part of your question, about factory farm regulations, goes back to February, 2000 when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulatory rules specific to factory farming that were originally designed to limit pollution of both the air and water. However, the rules were so stripped down by corporate interests that when they passed in February of 2003 factory farms could legally apply manure on fields without proper regulation or requirement to inform the public. Those same farms were also exempted from meeting the water quality standards laid out in the Clean Water Act.

This was so outrageous that environmental advocacy groups like the Water Keepers Alliance, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit to challenge the rule in the federal court of appeals. By late February 2005, the court of appeals determined that the EPA must make changes so that all farms will be in compliance with the Clean Water Act and included the mandate that the public must be informed and involved in the process. So as to your concern about corporations reaping the benefits of lax environmental standards, I would say that this has been the case in the past but hopefully we have just made a step in the right direction towards creating more discriminating standards. Whew!!  But wait, but we are only half way there.

As you well know, the number of companies that market and distribute agricultural products are fewer and fewer these days. In the meat industry, this consolidation is particularly marked. I though it would be interesting to go through the numbers in beef, pork and poultry and see what parent companies controlled the markets and who their subsidiaries were, knowing that it would answer your question about Tyson. I ended up with five pages of notes and a very complicated diagram!!  I will do my best to give you the short version of that convoluted research mission.

In beef, Tyson, Cargill, Swift &Co. and the National Beef Packing Co. control 83.5% of the packing industry. Tyson subsidiaries include Iowa Beef Packers, Bruss, Nature’s Farm (organic beef), Tyson Fresh Meats and Weaver (processed poultry). Cargill has a number of food related subsidiaries which include Sterling Silver, Angus Pride and Tender Choice, Sunny Fresh Foods and Taylor Packing. Swift &Co. (46% owned by ConAgra) sells value added, fresh branded meat products under their own name. The National Beef Packing Company also sells under NatureWell Natural Beef for their cornfed and naturally raised products.

In pork, Smithfield Foods, Tyson, Swift &Co. and Hormel Foods control 64% of the packing industry. Some familiar players here, so lets just go through the newbies: Smithfield has 18 subsidiaries which include companies like Carolina Turkey, Moyer Packing, Murphy Brown, Norson, Northside Food Co., Packerland Holdings, Pennexx Foods, Quik to Fix Foods, Stefano Foods and the Smithfield Companies. I couldn’t track down any specifics on Hormel but those details could be forth coming.

In broilers,Tyson Foods, Pilgrims Pride, Gold Kist and Perdue control 56% of the market. Again, we see certain companies popping back up again. For the new companies: Pilgrims Pride (38% owned by ConAgra) also sells under Wampler Foods brand. Both Gold Kist and Perdue sell primarily under their primary name which probably means that they sound a lot more familiar that some of these other companies. For more information on corporations and their holdings check out agribusinesscenter.orgagribusinessaccountability.org or Mary Hendrickson’s work with the University of Missouri’s Department of Rural Sociology.

So you can see that there are a few key players in this industry and because of that tracking down a food product to the company it might be attached to can be very difficult. Keeping in mind that many products are marketed under grocery store brands or names, this list should give you a better range of companies to sort through your local store’s selection. It can all seem overwhelming but this is part of the reason why consumers are more and more interested in buying directly from a farmer or group of farmers. The shorter the chain of supply is the easier it is to know where your food came from. Good luck and keep us posted on your active shopping endeavors!! Whew, again!!

Best Wishes,
Laura – The Farm Aid Shopper

asklaura@farmaid.org

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