Cattle auctions happen every day throughout the US; they serve a crucial purpose for the cattle markets. Inside one of these auctions, like the one we profile in St. Onge, South Dakota, you can see how a competitive market functions. There are multiple producers and buyers competing for a commodity, which results in a value, or price, for that commodity.
But over the past 40 years, the meatpacking sector — made up of the companies that buy and slaughter cattle for consumption — has undergone a dramatic degree of corporate consolidation. In the 1980s, the US relaxed its approach to antitrust enforcement, one tool the government uses to rein in market concentration. Today, only four companies process 85 percent of all the cattle produced in the US.
Cattle ranchers say this is affecting their ability to compete for good prices and make a living. This is one way industrialized agriculture is making it difficult for independent farmers and ranchers to stay in business in America.
For this story, we contacted Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef, and JBS for comment. We only received a response from Tyson; a representative shared testimony from one of the company’s executives at a recent Senate hearing. We included that in this video, and the full transcript is here.
This is the first episode of a series we are producing with the Future Perfect team at Vox, a group that explores big problems and the big ideas that can tackle them. We are calling this season The Human Cost of Meat, and future episodes will explore other ways industrial meat production has transformed the lives of people who consume meat, work in the meat industry, or live near a factory farm.
You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.