A house of cards—meat plant closings show strains of system

It’s a “house of cards”—corporate meat plants closed around our country due to COVID-19, which is exposing their instability and inability to adequately respond to crises, either from pandemics, natural disasters or economic downturns. This type of monopolistic corporate-control is harmful to our national security, while also exploiting family farmers, workers and rural communities across our country.

For example, the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that temporarily closed due to coronavirus accounts for 4-5% of United States pork production, and Smithfield (a Chinese-owned meatpacking corporation) controls 25% of the pork in the U.S. Now two foreign corporations control half of the “U.S.” pork industry. Let us say again: this is entirely too much power in too few hands, and it puts our countries’ food system at risk.

Over the last three decades, factory farm corporations (the biggest owned by foreign corporations with ties to foreign governments) have put hundreds of thousands of independent U.S. hog producers out of business—which resulted in putting thousands of local independently owned processors out-of-business. This has severely negatively impacted our ability to feed our families locally, and is also extracting huge amounts of wealth from our communities.

The truth is that we need more family farmers and more local processors. We need policies that lift up diversification and decentralization of our food system, for the betterment of family farmers and consumers alike.

Specifically, COVID-19 public stimulus money needs to go directly to independent family farmers and local businesses—and specifically not to multinational companies with operations around the world, like Smithfield and JBS, which both reported huge earnings in 2019.

MRCC member and independent cattle farmer from Callaway County, Missouri, Jefferson Jones, hit the nail on the head: “In this time of crisis, we need to demand that our public taxpayer dollars invest in independent family farms and rural communities, not absentee and foreign factory farm and meatpacking corporations. The negative consequences of corporate, absentee and foreign control of our food supply needs to be addressed both now and after this crisis is over.”

Now and after COVID-19, government policies and taxpayer dollars need to focus on revitalizing the infrastructure needed for a more resilient, regional food system that allows independent family-scale livestock operations to access a fair and functional marketplace, without relying on massive factory farms tied to supply chains of massive corporate-owned slaughterhouses.

The government pandemic response programs need to prioritize programs for family farms and locally owned food businesses and deprioritize taxpayer dollars going to corporate agriculture; prohibit loans for new or expanding concentrated animal feeding operations; require fair market practices rules to allow independent livestock producers and small and mid-sized packing plants to compete on a level playing field; establish a moratorium on new agribusiness and food industry mergers; and reinstate Country of Origin Labeling.

Here is an example of a step in the right direction—recently, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into the “growing concentration in the meatpacking and processing industry, and any anticompetitive behavior resulting from this concentration.” The letter recognized that this type of concentration “has undermined the stability of America’s meat supply and become an issue of national security.” Please call and thank Sens. Hawley and Baldwin for standing up for America’s independent family farmers, our rural economies, consumer-choice and our national security

—Rhonda Perry is a cattle and row crop farmer from Howard County and the program director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.