Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety News. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Hayden L. Ballard

By way of introduction for those who haven’t seen it, in “Lonesome Dove” the two main characters (Gus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call) are a couple of old, washed-up, Texas Rangers-turned-cattlemen, who start a cattle company and plan to trail a couple thousand head of cattle from Texas to the Montana Territory. Gus, the more eccentric of the two, makes a sign for their new cattle company, and to the sign adds the line “We Don’t Rent Pigs!” 

Captain Call, the more level-headed and serious one, is obviously not impressed by the sign and asks Gus why he had to put that stupid line on there. Gus responds: 

“Well, we don’t rent pigs and I figure it’s better to say it up front ‘cause a man that does like to rent pigs is… he’s hard to stop.” 

While Gus never explains exactly what he meant by the second half of that statement, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision why someone would want to rent a pig…to eat it. If you do rent a pig to a man who wants to eat it, you’re getting the “short end of the stick” because you’re probably not ever getting that pig back, ‘cause a man who does like to rent pigs is…, well, hard to stop. Essentially, this tongue-in-cheek line can be interpreted as saying we don’t tolerate dishonest people who want to “rent” pigs.

As this is a blog post, at this point, you the dear reader may be thinking “well that’s a wonderful story about two fictional cowboys from a by-gone era, but what in the world does that have to do with current food safety issues?” 

To answer that question, fast forward to the year 2020. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has swept the world, the booming economy of the United States has ground to a halt, State Governors have issued stay-at-home orders, and businesses across the country have closed their doors. Meanwhile, America’s meat producers (particularly it’s cattle, hog and poultry farmers/ranchers) haven’t stopped working, and production continues (because you can’t exactly tell a hog to stop growing just because the world is under quarantine). 

Unfortunately, many of the meat processing plants across the country ARE closing due to health concerns related to COVID-19. For example, over twenty meat processing plants across the country have shut down over the span of the past two months as thousands of packing house workers have tested positive for the virus. These closures and reduction in workforce has resulted in an overall reduction in production capacity of 30% – 40%. 

This reduction in processing capacity is problematic for all meat producers, but particularly troublesome for pork producers. Because the pork processing industry has become so centralized in a handful of companies, those companies have standardized their processes and require a certain weight of hog for the machinery to operate efficiently. This creates a bottleneck of sorts, because pork producers can’t simply wait for the COVID-19 epidemic to blow over and wait for the packing houses to come back online, because by then, the hogs they are currently raising will be to big and the packing house won’t take them. While small, local butcher shops could alleviate some of this bottleneck, because of the consolidation in the industry, small butcher shops are far and few between, and with plant closures, most small butchers are already booked 3 months out. Producers could also sell directly to consumers, but few consumers know how to butcher their own pig, and as stated, small butchers are already booked, so that rules out the option of consumers purchasing direct from farmers and taking it to get slaughtered themselves.

What all this means for meat producers is that due to the COVID-19 virus, they simply have nowhere to go with their livestock. According to John Tyson, the Chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, what this means is:

“In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue…Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation…the food supply chain is breaking.”

The situation has gotten so bad that it is estimated that around 160,000 hogs will be euthanized DAILY in the United States in the coming days. With these kinds of numbers of hogs being killed every day, but not being put into the food supply chain, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to realize that very soon there won’t be any ham, bacon or sausage in the supermarket.

The situation is just as bad for cattle producers, dairy farmers and poultry farmers, as producers have begun euthanizing chickens and dumping milk for the same reasons.

In an effort to curb this problem, President Trump recently invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to order meat processing plants to stay open during this pandemic. While some have criticized the move as endangering lives and creating other food safety issues, the move was much needed. Ultimately, while some criticized the President’s actions as creating food safety issues (letting meat plants and meat workers be exposed to COVID-19) one must ask themselves, at what point does the risk of food safety outweigh the actual availability of food at all? At this point, the repercussions of all plants shutting down in this country would push recovery from months to years. This move by President Trump may be a band-aid that “stopped the bleeding” for now, but it definitely hasn’t cured the problem.

While the Coronavirus was clearly the identifiable catalyst to this pending meat shortage, the virus simply exacerbated an underlying condition that has been festering in this country for the past few decades – consolidation. In the United States, roughly ¾ of all pork is processed by four companies, JBS, Cargill, Tyson and Smithfield, commonly known as “The Big Four.” Further, “there are more than 60,000 pork producers in the U.S., but roughly 60% of all hogs are processed in just 15 large pork-packing plants. These packing plants are designed to efficiently and affordably process animals for food consumption, and each one has a large workforce.”

Not only does this level of market share make what’s left of the hog cash market susceptible to undue influence, but as seen, this consolidation has now contributed to a possible nationwide food shortage and food safety crisis. All it takes is for one of these companies to shutter its plants, and as seen by the nationwide euthanization of hogs, and other meat animals, instantly the farmers feel the devastating effects. Additionally, with the packing industry so consolidated, it has pushed small, local butchers out of business, and only a handful remain – further adding fuel to the fire. 

So if major consolidation and monopolization of the meat industry has contributed to a nationwide food shortage/safety crisis, then what can be done to help fix this problem? There are several things that can be done at the federal level to assist in rectifying this situation.

  1. The Trump Administration needs to use the authority granted by the Packers & Stockyards Act, and enforce its provisions as to break up the meat packing monopolies, just like was done when the act was first passed roughly 100 years ago. Doing so would make it easier for hog livestock auctions to be reopened and create a cash market for hogs again. This would reduce the complete reliance on the integrator contracts the Big Four currently utilize, and which have aided in the standardization of hog slaughter which has led to the current bottleneck in processing. These integrator contracts essentially make the pork farmers renters of the very pigs they raise, because oftentimes the company (one of The Big Four) retains ownership of the pig for its entire life, and the farmer simply cares for it. Essentially, the farmers “rent” the pigs (for more on that go read “The Meat Racket” by Christopher Leonard).
  2. Congress needs to create small-business exceptions to the myriad of rules and regulations imposed on large packers, and extend them to small local butchers, to make it easier for them to stay in business, and for more processors to enter the market.
  3. Congress should loosen food safety regulations and make it easier for hog producers to sell directly to consumers.

While these changes will not alleviate the total problem here-and-now in 2020 (the damage has already been done to the supply chain), by implementing these changes, perhaps we could avoid a similar problem in the future. Perhaps for that reason, the Coronavirus was a blessing in disguise as it revealed a major vulnerability in our nation’s meat supply chain – namely consolidation in the meat processing market has created bottlenecks which as seen here in 2020 can lead to food shortages, euthanization of productive farm animals, and ultimately food insecurity.

In sum, in the coming days and months, with less and less meat being sold in the store, consumers may very well start turning to their local farmers hoping to buy some meat. However, unless action is taken at the federal level as outlined in this post to ensure that the meat supply chain is de-centralized and more local processing encouraged, it may be difficult for every consumer to get enough meat to eat. BUT, if these changes are put in place, perhaps hog farmers can stop “renting” the pigs from The Big Four. Like was said at the beginning, the tongue-in-cheek line from Gus McCrae saying “We Don’t Rent Pigs” can be interpreted as saying we don’t tolerate dishonest people who want to “rent” pigs. Today, the Big Four literally rent pigs to the farmers who are beholden to the companies will, and while the farmer may not trust the system, there isn’t much that can be done by the individual farmer. However, as said, if these problems are rectified, then the independent farmers can again hold their heads high, and may have to start hanging a new sign out front – “We Don’t Rent Pigs!…But We Do Sell ‘Em.”

1. See Fox News, Agriculture Sec. Perdue on meat workers health concern amid coronavirus pandemic, Fox News Network, LLC, available at: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6153248260001?fbclid=IwAR0iu6gxCpAiQZx1HcQjhKFsUe-l0nj04dJu91p6eA6wurQHgrXiaY0FPYE#sp=show-clips (April 30, 2020).

 2. See Fox News, Could food plant closures disrupt food supply chains?, Fox News Network, LLC, available at: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6152541987001#sp=show-clips (April 28, 2020). 

 3. See Jenny Splitter, Farmers Face Their Worst-Case Scenario: ‘Depopulating’ Chickens, Euthanizing Pigs And Dumping Milk, Forbes, available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennysplitter/2020/04/28/farmers-face-their-worst-case-scenarios-depopulating-chickens-euthanizing-pigs-and-dumping-milk/?fbclid=IwAR0ILYXF93yb5CvEqym9gv97QQv2dYOjsX10huChipmHgoWw_onS4I1EBt0#2dc39aa93003 (April 28, 2020). 

4. Id.

5. See Fox News, supra note 2.

6. See Mike Dorning and Michael Hirtzer, America’s Mass Hog Cull Begins With Meat to Rot in Landfills, Bloomberg Business, available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-28/closed-jbs-plant-will-be-used-to-euthanize-hogs-peterson-says (April 28, 2020). 

7. See Splitter, supra note 3.

 8. See BBC, Coronavirus: Trump orders meatpacking plants to stay open, BBC News, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52466502 (April 29, 2020). 

9. See Food & Water Watch, The Anticompetitive Effects of the Proposed JBS-Cargill Pork Packing Acquisition, Iowa Farmers Union, available at: https://inmotionmagazine.com/ra15/JBS-Cargill_White_Paper.pdf (2015). 

10.  See Jayson Lusk and Candace Croney, The Road from Farm to Table, Purdue University College of Agriculture, available at: https://ag.purdue.edu/stories/the-road-from-farm-to-table/?fbclid=IwAR0lORw686qjABwa2_dDM_O52QDkP6Okot3zZ8ILZYmU4bLMLO1_jzmrbGc (April 28, 2020). 

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