The Pandemic Exposed Deep Problems in the Meat Industry

We all remember the shortages that defined the early days of coronavirus lockdowns. Retail outlets responded as quickly as possible to shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants. But then the supply chain disruptions hit the meat department of supermarkets everywhere. Consumers encountered empty coolers instead of packages of chicken or steak, and what was available was more expensive. Frustrations mounted. 

But customers weren’t the only angry ones; ranchers are also mad. It’s a little counterintuitive—hamburger prices increased from as low as $1.84 a pound to more than $6 a pound—so ranchers’ anger doesn’t make much sense to the average American. Why wouldn’t the producers of hamburgers benefit from high prices for hamburgers? 

The answer is complex but important. The market for beef and pork isn’t just one market, but several. It is possible for the market for live cattle ready for slaughter to be in surplus, while the retail market is struggling to satisfy demand. That’s exactly what has happened during the pandemic: At the same time that retail prices spiked, farmers suffered from falling prices for their cattle. The extra money you paid for your ground beef went not to ranchers but to meat packers.

Farmers, and the groups that represent them, are very conscious of that price gap, between farm and retail. Having been here before, we have a long list of policy solutions at the ready to improve producers’ position in the marketplace. President Trump may have given renewed life to populism, but populism down on the farm has been around almost as long as cockleburs and grasshoppers. Most of the ideas presently rattling around coffee shops and convenience stores where we farmers gather have been tried before, and most have fallen by the wayside for perfectly good reasons, but we seemed destined to repeat every farm policy mistake of the past. 

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