Meat Giants Face Ire in Washington Amid U.S. Beef Surge

Meatpackers are in the crosshairs of U.S. lawmakers including traditional allies as ranchers complain that beef processors are abusing market power to gain out-sized margins at their expense.

Four giant companies control more than 80% of U.S. beef processing. Ranchers and cattle feeders are seething over a surge in retail beef prices this year that they say has resulted in little improvement in the prices they receive for livestock, repeating a pattern during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rural Republican senators, traditionally allies of business interests, have been criticizing meatpacking companies as farm and cattle groups demand more scrutiny of the industry. Executives from Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS USA -- the two biggest U.S. beef packers -- testified Wednesday at the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

Shane Miller, group president of fresh meats for Tyson Foods defended high beef prices and comparatively lower cattle values. The price swings have “everything to do with the law of supply and demand” and “unprecedented market shocks we’ve faced over the past 18 months,” he told senators.

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, blamed “market manipulation by multinational meat companies like those represented here today.” Larew called on senators to “push for much more vigorous antitrust enforcement to rein in the unchecked power of the packers, and if need be, bust ‘em up.”

“The present situation for small cow-calf producers is untenable,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. “Something is seriously wrong here and it cannot go on here as it is.”