The Biden–Harris Administration has authorized $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for the expansion of independent processing capacity to help independent meat and poultry processors compete with the big companies.
Currently, four large meat-packing companies control approximately 85% of the beef market, while the top four poultry processing firms control 54% of the market, and the top four pork processing firms control nearly 70% of the market.
“When too few companies control such a large portion of the market, our food supply chains are susceptible to shocks,” said the White House in a statement. “When COVID-19 or other disasters such as fires or cyber attacks shutter a plant, many ranchers have no other place to take their animals. Our over-reliance on just a handful of giant processors leaves us all vulnerable, with any disruptions at these bottlenecks rippling throughout our food system.”
After sitting down with farmers, ranchers, and independent processors from across the country, the President enacted the Biden–Harris Administration’s Action Plan to create a fairer, more competitive, and more resilient meat and poultry supply chain.
Corwin Heatwole, a sixth-generation farmer in Harrisonburg, Va., and CEO of Farmer Focus, participated in the roundtable with President Biden, and noted that competition is key to a thriving poultry industry that provides fair pay to farmers and transparency to consumers. “We are optimistic about the administration’s focus on increasing processing capacity for independents,” he tells Food Quality & Safety. “In addition to opening up options and opportunities for generational family farmers, consumers will benefit from choice in how their chickens were raised and through the added transparency of labeling as laid out by [USDA] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack and President Biden.”
The plan includes four core strategies for creating a more competitive and objective meat and poultry sector, designed to create better earnings for producers and more choices and affordable prices for consumers.
As part of the plan, USDA will award $32 million in grants to 167 meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities to support expanded capacity and efficiency through the Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Grant program.
Kathleen Merrgian, former U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture who now leads the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University in Tempe, noted the plan isn’t just about money, although that is a critical component to the plan. “It is also about enforcing statutes as they relate to anticompetitive behavior,” she says. “This is a potential big win for small and specialty-product producers who, due to the small number of animals they raise, find it difficult to find processing facilities willing to halt industrial scale lines and accommodate them. This oftentimes includes organic producers, who are required to process their animals under strict rules that require segregation. “
She adds that opaque contracts and insufficient competition have long plagued the meat sector. From producers through the supply chain to consumers, she believes the industry will be better off if the Biden Administration successfully addresses monopolistic behaviors and creates a more resilient sector.