After a cyberattack crippled the world’s largest meat producer last week, JBS SA meat factories began to reopen across the world. But the meat industry is not expected to resume operations as usual – and for the safety of our food supply, the Biden administration needs to ensure that is not the case.
The subversion of JBS, which has been attributed to a Russian-linked cybercrime group, was the latest in a series of Black Swan events that have crippled major meat producers in recent years. The March 2019 fire in Holcomb, Kansas destroyed a Tyson Foods plant that processed about 5% of American beef. In April 2020, major pork and chicken processing plants nationwide became COVID-19 hotspots, sparking cascading shutdowns that included a Smithfield Foods plant processing more than 15% of all pork to United States Last week’s JBS attack sabotaged more than a fifth of all American beef processed within minutes.
It reminded us of a glaring truth we already knew: Consolidation has made the U.S. meat industry – and the global protein supply – deeply and unacceptably vulnerable. It will become more vulnerable in the years to come as public health threats and potential cyber attacks continue to weigh heavily and climate change increases the risk of natural disasters. Drought, heat, flooding, wildfires, insects, super storms and weather volatility are increasing the pressure on our farms and ranches. In short, the cost reduction benefits of farm consolidation are increasingly outweighed by the risks of disruption.
Food industry experts have long called for systemic “resilience”. Last April, as the pandemic hit meat producers and before starting his second tour as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack told me that it was better to have several factories in multiple locations – smaller facilities to produce enough products. And that may mean a little less profit, but it does mean that if you have an incident like this that threatens your workforce, you will still have sufficient capacity to operate. Vilsack reiterated this sentiment on Tuesday on a call with reporters: “Efficiency comes at a price, and that price is a lack of resilience when you have a major disruption.”
Activists argued in stronger terms: the time has come “to deindustrialize and decentralize the American food system [and] breaking the meat oligopoly, ”environmental author Michael Pollan wrote last May. Philanthropist chef Jose Andres told me: “The centralized food system in big factories puts us at risk. Decentralization makes you agile.
Yet little has been done to decentralize meat production in the United States. The Biden administration, along with state and federal lawmakers, have an urgent obligation not only to encourage and support smaller and more diverse meat processors and producers, but also to begin to dismantle and dismantle diversify the US meat monopolies, which have gone unchallenged and unchecked for too long. .
Radical reforms will take years, but the USDA can begin mobilizing a plan immediately with the $ 4 billion allocated for food supply chain resilience under the American Rescue Plan Act.
On Tuesday, Vilsack explained how he intends to spend these funds, and while I applaud his plan to subsidize farmers practicing regenerative agriculture – inherently more resilient than industrial production – he should clarify his goals and timing. , and at least triple the $ 60 million grant. which was intended to help develop smaller scale meat and poultry processors across the country.
The USDA is leading a large-scale study on resilient processing of meat and poultry that is expected to be released this summer. Vilsack should listen carefully to small and medium-sized processors and producers to find out what they need to expand their operations while meeting federal food safety standards.
Beyond subsidies, small producers and processors need other forms of support from the USDA. Vilsack must continue to reform and refocus the Food Safety and Inspection Service to better support small and medium-sized players. He should create dedicated roles within the department to help local processors create regional markets while meeting the standards needed to sell their products across states and become competitive with major meat packers. Vilsack is also expected to give the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, hollowed out under President Donald Trump, the power to investigate and hold large meat processors to account. Vilsack’s USDA should also coordinate with the Justice Department for more active antitrust enforcement – and the Justice Department should diligently review proposed mergers in the food and agriculture sector.
The industrial Goliaths have built up a strong hold on world agriculture: in the United States alone, four processors slaughter more than 80% of the beef; four meat packers process around two-thirds of the country’s pigs; and five companies control approximately 60% of the broiler chicken market.
The vertical integration of livestock and poultry supply chains, with the same companies producing animals and slaughtering, has stifled competition and led to widespread pricing and corruption.
The Biden administration and Congress must clarify and strengthen antitrust laws so that they apply more clearly to large-scale food production. And the president is expected to continue to appoint people within the USDA and DOJ who are prepared to challenge the interests of industrial operators – a position that has long been politically unfavorable to politicians on both sides.
Since Upton Sinclair’s eye-opening novel “The Jungle,” the US meat industry has not faced a bigger paradigm shift, and Biden and Congress must oppose it. If they don’t, the United States – and the world – won’t be able to maintain a reliable supply of protein in a time of disruption.
Amanda Little is Professor of Journalism and Science Writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after COVID-19 as well as the book “The fate of food: what we will eat in a bigger, hotter and smarter world”.