Well-intentioned bipartisan legislation supported by Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso would allow state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines. Under normal conditions, this might create a boon for locally raised beef that could now be processed in Wyoming and sold under a private label all over the country.
But we are not living in ordinary times, and right now the problem is not demand, it’s meeting that demand. Local butchers can’t keep up with the demand in the county, let alone custom processing of meat bound for a boutique grocery store in some big city.
The fragility of our food supply chain was exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, creating challenges for the industry to get food from fields and farms to kitchen tables. The pandemic has placed particular strain on beef, poultry and pork supplies as processing plants nationwide have curtailed production as workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The resulting bottleneck has meant lower prices for farmers and ranchers because of the growing number of animals in the pipeline. On the other end of the supply chain, retail prices for meat have increased by more than 20% since this time last year, and grocery stores have put per customer limits on some meat purchases.
One of the very few good things that could be said to come from the pandemic is that consumers all over the country are realizing the food on their tables doesn’t come from the grocery store. Demand for locally raised and butchered meat has skyrocketed. Many consumers have also realized for the first time that the Big Four meat packers (Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., JBS USA and National Beef Packing Co.) have a stranglehold on America’s meat supply – it’s not the ranchers making money when you pay $6 per pound for ground beef.
In principle, allowing state-inspected meats to be sold across state lines should provide the necessary competition to shake up the packers’ monopoly on meat production. However, breaking up the Big Four will have little impact if there is not something in place to increase the capacity of smaller, regional meat processors.
According to a Wyoming Beef Industry Study released in February, the estimated slaughtering capacity for Wyoming processors is 21,320 animals annually. That’s roughly the number of cattle that JBS USA beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado, can slaughter in four days.
This fall, Central Wyoming College will debut a meat-processing curriculum. The curriculum will be offered as a two-year course, with the option to either leave the college with a meat-processing certificate and enter the workforce or to transfer credits to a university to pursue a meat science degree.
Johnson County School District and Sheridan College would do well to follow this lead. There is a real need right here in Johnson County for skilled laborers to expand existing meat-processing capacity. Both local meat processors are booked through the end of the year, and the story is the same all over the state. Without additional labor, there can be no additional output. This will vastly limit the efficacy of Enzi and Barasso’s legislation.
We urge Enzi and Barrasso to also consider federal tax incentives for expanding existing infrastructure to increase regional meat processing capacity or create new capacity.
Only then will the Big Four face enough real competition to diminish their monopolistic, predatory behavior.
Increased competition from regional meat processing plants will have the dual beneficial effects of putting more money into ranchers’ hands while simultaneously lowering the costs to consumers at the supermarket. In other words, everybody but the Big Four wins.