Eli Hoff is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund intern. In the mid-2000s, a poultry researcher approached James MacDonald, then a branch chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, with some data. Its detail and depth shocked him. “My reaction was, ‘Jeez, is this legal?’” MacDonald said. The question remains unanswered, albeit not for lack of trying: Agri Stats — a widely utilized, privately-held data and analytics firm for the meat processing industry — has been named in more than 90 lawsuits since 2016, making it the second-most sued company in the industry over that time span (Tyson Foods is first).
The CEO's of all the major meat packers have just collectively set their hair on fire and are likely calling internal company meetings RIGHT NOW about how to handle the industry's greatest threat in, like, forever. That's because the United States Department of Agriculture announced this month that it will attempt to significantly strengthen enforcement of the 100-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act that was originally written to stop meat packers from stealing from poultry,hog farmers and cattle ranchers with a bag of tricks that manipulated live stock prices through unfair, deceptive and anti-competitive practices. As written back in 1921:
Section 202 of the PSA (7 U.S.C. §§ 192 (a) and (e)) makes it unlawful for any packer who inspects livestock, meat products or livestock products to engage in or use any unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practice or device, or engage in any course of business or do any act for the purpose or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices or creating a monopoly in the buying, selling or dealing any article in restraint of commerce. But meat packers have had a century to go to the courts in order to chip away at straightforward protections. And chip away they did, finally hitting the mother load in 2004 in the landmark case Pickett v. Tyson Fresh Meats Inc.
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled that to win Section 202 PSA case a meat producer or rancher had to prove a singular meat packer's buying practices reduced marketplace competition by arbitrarily lowering prices paid to sellers with the likely effect of increasing retail prices.
Big Meat's secret weapon is a company called Agri Stats. Every week a bunch of Big Meat companies send Agri Stats a raft load of internal sales documents which Agri Stats merges into a industry wide sales report and sends back to subscribers. Agri Stats and those reports are at the heart of numerous lawsuits alleging that the reporting system allows Big Meat to participate in illegal anticompetitive activity.
All through 2020, Big Meat and the Trump White House abused immigrants and low-income people working at the nation's slaughterhouses, all but physically forcing them to work in a cauldron pot of coronavirus. The White House named meat packers essential workers while Big Meat failed to do enough to protect its on-line employees from COVID-19. Predictably, avoidable illness and death followed. Now comes litigation.
Well, times are changing, and Big-Meat won't be able to be so caviler to the shiny new House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis chaired by U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn. The South Carolina Democrat wasted no time after his appointment to demand Big-Meat to account for its COVID response.
Of course, they denied it. We didn't do anything wrong. There ain't any liability! Such was the tired worn-out rhetoric of Pilgrim's Pride Corporation and Tyson Foods, Inc in agreeing to settle a long-running civil suit filed by Maplevale Farms claiming the two Big-Meat giants fixed prices on broiler chickens.
Big Ag must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when President-elect Joe Biden tapped Tom Vilsack to be secretary of USDA. For Big Ag Vilsack is like your grandfather's favorite slippers – comfortable, cuddley warm, and dependable.
Last month our worst fears were confirmed after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a pair of COVID-19 safety violation related fines against Big-Meat giants China WH-group owned Smithfield Foods and Brazilian-owned JBS. Mismanagement at Smithfield’s meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota resulted in almost 13-hundred COVID-19 positive tests. Four plant workers died. JBS is equally culpable. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado 290 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Six have died.