WASHINGTON – The Open Market Institute, Food & Water Action, and Family Farm Action Alliance today called on the Trump administration and federal law enforcement agencies to protect the American food supply by addressing dangerous concentrations of power and slaughterhouse capacity. The proposal was signed by 14 other organizations, including the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Family Farm Coalition, and Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.
The groups called for a repeal of the executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep slaughterhouses running, saying the order “does not provide sufficient protection for the workers risking their lives to keep plants operating. More fundamentally, it does nothing to address the underlying structure of the meat industry that created this public health and food security crisis in the first place.”
“COVID-19 has revealed the dangers of our consolidated meat supply chain, in which a handful of powerful, vertically integrated corporations control entire markets, shape government policy, and exploit workers and farmers,” the organizations wrote.
Labor conditions in meatpacking plants have driven major coronavirus outbreaks among workers, prompting 21 plants to close, sickening more than 4,300 workers, and killing at least 20.
With just four corporations controlling 85% of beef processing, three controlling 63% of hog processing, and half of all poultry farmers reporting they have just one or two buyers for their birds, there is not sufficient competition among livestock processors to ensure fair prices for farmers, say the groups. “Most farmers are trapped in take-it-or-leave-it contracts that hold down the prices they receive and that dictate many aspects of their operations,” the groups wrote.
In addition to calling for a repeal of the executive order, the organizations proposed blocking agricultural industry mergers and undoing past mergers that allowed any corporation to control more than 10% of the U.S. market in either livestock purchasing or meat sales. Other antitrust measures proposed included enforcement of the Packers & Stockyards Act and reinstatement of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration as a stand-alone agency.
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The organizations also called on the USDA to revoke all line speed increases implemented under the New Poultry and Pork Inspection Programs and related waivers, to increase funding for food safety inspectors, and to provide proper protective equipment, premium pay, and fully paid sick leave to workers.
“Decades of industry consolidation created a meat production system that was built to break,” the groups said. “To truly protect consumers, workers, farmers, and the public, we call for the administration and law enforcement agencies to use existing anti-monopoly authority to restructure this industry in ways that radically and greatly reduce the concentration of risk in any one facility
“This crisis presents an unprecedented challenge for our country, but also an unprecedented chance to witness the inherent dangers in our food system,” said Claire Kelloway, reporter and researcher at Open Markets, who was the lead author of the proposal. “It is imperative that we take every precaution to protect workers through this crisis while also taking bold action to restructure the meat industry to create fair and resilient markets for America’s farmers, workers, and eaters.”
“Our federal government has enabled agricultural giants to exploit our weak and vulnerable food system for far too long. In the face of this pandemic, enough is enough,” said Amanda Starbuck, senior researcher and food policy analyst for Food & Water Action. “Slaughter plants must shut down and stay shut down as long as there is risk of coronavirus contamination, and functioning plants must put strict regulations, safety precautions, and worker compensations in place immediately. It is time for our leaders to stand up to these powerful corporations and to restructure our livestock meat industry so it works for workers, farmers, and consumers.”
Joe Maxwell, co-founder of Family Farm Action Alliance, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the frailty of the current monopoly-controlled food and agriculture supply chain. The president ordering plants to stay open, jeopardizing the health of the workers and their communities, is not the answer. It is time he and others recognize that the current heavily concentrated food system is a liability and a food and national security risk. The time has come to diversify our food processing market and to make investments and to provide support for small and mid-sized processing plants, solving this crisis and ensuring a resilient food supply system for the future.”