USDA expands investigation of beef prices to include coronavirus

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on social media Wednesday that an ongoing USDA investigation of beef prices will be expanded to include complaints about unfair prices due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cattle prices fell by as much as 25 percent as the scope of the health crisis became apparent, but wholesale prices surged as consumers stocked up on beef during the stay-at-home era.

“USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division will be extending our oversight to determine the causes of divergence between box and live beef prices, beginning with the Holcomb Fire in KS last summer and now with COVID-19,” said Perdue on Twitter. Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer said the expanded investigation will “ensure there is fairness throughout our beef supply chain.”

The USDA began looking into beef prices last summer after a fire at a large Tyson Foods packing plant in Holcomb, Kansas, prompted a rise in beef prices and a fall in the market price for slaughter cattle. The Holcomb plant processed 5 percent of U.S. cattle.

The sharp divergence between cattle prices and boxed beef prices led some Western senators to speculate about the power meatpackers have to influence market prices. A handful of packers dominate the industry.