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What’s the beef?

SLO County Cattlemen concerned about industry consolidation

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There’s a meat industry monopoly and the San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association wants something done about it. On March 11 the SLO Cattlemen met at the Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles and unanimously passed a resolution opposing what they say is a corporate monopoly in the meatpacking industry.

Human rights and environmental groups have criticized corporate consolidation in the meat packing industry for years, with the popularity of books like “Fast Food Nation� by Eric Schlosser bringing the issue into the public eye. Locally, the smaller independent ranchers who fear they will soon suffer as a result are chiming in.

Jim Sinton, a longtime local rancher, composed the anti-monopoly resolution and presented it to the 100-plus local SLO county cattle ranchers who gathered for the twice-yearly meeting. The 88-year-old cattleman said that his family has been ranching in SLO County since 1875. The county has a long history of ranching, he said; one family has been ranching in the area since 1800.

“In the other meat businesses, they used to be operated by individual ranches and then it became a monopoly,� he said. “I’m afraid we’re heading for something like that in the cattle industry.�

Sinton said there used to be productive turkey and hog ranches in the county that are now long gone, a result of powerful corporations that worked out the smaller ranchers.

“Many people are beginning to worry about their future because they see what happened to other industries, like hogs,� he said.

In the 1920s, four corporations owned 54 percent of the industry and they were broken up for being a monopoly, said Sinton. Today, four corporations — Tyson Foods, Cargill, Swift & Co., and National Beef Packing Co. — own 84 percent of the meatpacking industry, he added; a statistic that was repeated by Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia Chapter.

Sinton wants an end to the monopoly.

“We know that it can be done and that the laws can be enforced and should be enforced,� he said.

He added that it’s not a partisan issue; neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are doing anything about it.

“I think we have reason to be nervous,� Sinton said. “The matter of consolidation
and monopoly in the industry is of great
concern to us.�

According to Sinton, most ranchers in SLO County are range cattlemen who sell their cows and calves to feedlots, who in turn sell them to the meatpackers. But the larger meatpacking corporations are starting to buy up more cattle from the middlemen feedlots, long before they will actually slaughter them. This, said Sinton, makes it hard for smaller-scale ranchers to figure a fair price for their own cattle.

So although local independent ranchers don’t deal directly with the larger corporate meatpackers, they are no doubt affected by the way they do businesses.

Sinton said he hopes his resolution will
get the California Cattlemen’s Association talking about it, which will then get the
attention of the National Cattlemen’s Association. Officials from the California Cattlemen’s Association attended the March 11 meeting in Paso Robles.

The four corporations who own the 84 percent of the meatpacking industry are represented in the National Cattlemen’s Association. But Sinton seems to be looking forward to the challenge.

“It will be interesting to see just how much heft these big four have,� he said.

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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