Chiewelthap Mariar was about three years old when his family, Christians from South Sudan, fled the aggression of the Muslim-led government in the north. As Ted Genoways writes in FERN’s latest story, published with The New Republic, Chiewelthap was shot and killed at the plant on Jan. 9 by a Guymon police officer, apparently during a dispute with his managers over his work assignment.
The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of a food system built around large-volume production and national supply chains, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. As a remedy, he said, the USDA would help independent processors start up or expand their operations and encourage local marketing.
Although the White House blames big meatpackers for driving up food prices, the real culprits are higher costs and labor shortages all along the supply chain, said a pork industry report on Wednesday. Four packers control 65 percent of hog slaughter in the United States, but the industry is less concentrated than it was five years ago.
Grocery prices are climbing at their fastest pace since 2008, with beef, pork and poultry leading the way — up nearly 13 percent since last November, said the government's new inflation report. The White House pinned the blame for surging meat prices on meatpackers "taking advantage of their market power to raise prices while increasing their own profit margins."
By large, bipartisan majorities, the House passed bills on Wednesday to introduce more transparency in cattle marketing and to keep in force a law that requires meatpackers to report purchase prices of livestock. The bills now go to the Senate for action.
A bill introduced in the Senate this week would improve working conditions and whistleblower protections for meatpacking workers while also cracking down on monopolistic practices in the industry. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act on Tuesday. In a press release, he called it a “critical piece in transforming our food system into one that is rooted in resilience, fairness, and justice.” (No paywall)
Five large meatpackers fell staggeringly short of their duty to protect their workers during the pandemic, with at least 269 deaths and at least 59,000 infections from Covid-19 among their employees — roughly three times more than thought — said Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Wednesday. (No paywall)
On a voice vote, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bipartisan bill on Thursday to create a cattle contract library at the USDA, with one proponent saying it would "inject much-needed transparency back into the marketplace." The bill was the first market reform to gain traction in Congress this year despite complaints by ranchers that meatpackers have an unfair advantage in an opaque sales system.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley urged reauthorization of mandatory price reporting, telling the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday that it is the ideal vehicle for ensuring cattle producers get a fair price from meatpackers. But few committee members got on board with the idea, preferring to switch topics and complain that the USDA's proposals for fair play in the marketplace would boomerang and mean lower sales prices.
Three months ago, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA would commit $500 million to expand meat and poultry processing capacity and create a more competitive livestock market. "I believe it is going to leverage literally billions of dollars in investment from investors and local governments," said Vilsack at a meat locker plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The toll the coronavirus has taken on the meatpacking industry may be greater than currently thought, said a House panel on Wednesday in asking Cargill and National Beef, two of the largest U.S. meat processors, to disclose how many of their workers had contracted Covid-19 and how many had died. (No paywall)
Nearly twice as many meat-processing plants employ short-term foreign workers than in 2015, "a small but growing trend" in the industry, said an Investigate Midwest report. Seaboard Foods, one of the companies using H-2B guestworkers, said it pays the workers the same wage and provides the same benefits that it gives domestic employees, although the comparatively small number of guestworkers wear a hard hat with an identifying color.
With Sen. John Thune decrying an "oligopoly" in the beef industry, a handful of senators on Wednesday called for Congress to give cattle producers a fairer shake when they send their stock to market.
After months of delay, the Biden administration on Thursday released a rule dictating how employers in the healthcare sector should protect workers from the spread of Covid-19. The exclusion of meatpacking, food processing, farm, and grocery retail workers from the new workplace standards sparked an outcry from worker advocacy groups and unions.(No paywall)