As the joint DOJ/USDA workshop on antitrust issues in the meat industry got underway in Fort Collins, CO Friday morning, Attorney General Eric Holder said something that caught my attention.
These hearings are about concentration in the beef and pork industries, and about whether the four ownership groups that control more than 80 percent or so of the meatpacking business are being fair to farmers and ranchers in rural America.
Food safety is not coming up much in this workshop. Yet as we are experiencing with the 550 million egg recall, when dominant players in the food industry screw up they can spew their poison so broadly and so quickly it takes our breath away.
What Holder said was that “big is not bad,” but the important thing is fairness. I was thinking one could say something similar about food safety. Big is not bad, it’s food safety that is important.
I am not sure the crowd in Fort Collins would agree. An auditorium full of cattlemen from the mountain and plains along with members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union among others is not exactly the kind of group that has much interest in the advantages and efficiencies of big scale meatpacking.
With enough folks wearing Farm Aid t-shirts thrown in, about the only thing this workshop is missing is Willie Nelson’s smiling face and red bandana.
Anyway, there’s going to be hours of talking here about obscure details of things like the Packers and Stockyards Act that has been on the books since the Great Depression.
Clearly the numbers point to the power of concentration. There are 71,000 hog producers now, down from 660,000 in 1980, and there are 950,000 cattle farms and ranches, down from 1.6 million in 1980.
We will have a more complete story on all this on Monday.