History doesn’t record who first uttered the ageless business maxim that “Time is money,” but a good bet might be a meatpacker because minutes and hours, like cattle and hogs, are valuable commodities under constant assault by packers.
As such, the most efficient packer — or, as they say in the business, the one that puts the most blood on the floor fastest — is, hands-down, the most profitable. This time-is-money mantra long ago took the butcher out of butchering and has all but eliminated the husband from animal husbandry.
Under the knife
Today’s livestock producer is more a technocrat than a farmer, a contract laborer who builds animals to packers’ exacting specifications so the packer can quickly and profitably deconstruct them. Animals aren’t the only items carved up and wholesaled by packers.
Congress and government watchdogs often go under the knife, too.
Don’t want your customers to know the beef they’re eating came from Costa Rica? Fight Country of Origin Labeling, COOL, the law of the land since 2002 that’s yet to be implemented because of packer lobbying.
Want to import cheaper, older-cow beef from Canada despite that nation’s continuing “mad cow” — discovery of the 13th (ho-hum) such animal since 2003, was made public Feb. 26 — woes? “Assist” the nation’s red meat inspector, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to develop “acceptable risk” rules to allow the imports.
Alarming as this packer-government coziness is, most of it could not have occurred without the active consent of key livestock producer groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council and other farm organizations. All are well-greased with lard from packers.
For example, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s “Allied Industry Partners” list (as noted at www.beefusa.org/affialliedindustrypartners.aspx) is a virtual who’s who — other than cattlemen, of course — of the red meat industry: Cargill, Tyson, Elanco, etc. And, as the Web site noted, one only lands on the list via the company checkbook.
“Gold level sponsors,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association helpfully explains, must make a “minimum $100,000 investment” in — wait for it — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Investment is a very pleasant word to describe what the loot actually buys. Influence, credibility and lobbying cover is a less pleasant, more accurate description what the relatively puny corporate cash really buys.
The sell-out of these commodity groups brings to mind a story Winston Churchill loved to tell about how he once asked some comely partygoer if she would allow him “favors” in return for a large sum of money. She quickly agreed. Churchill then asked if he would receive the same favors for a fraction of the earlier sum.
“Sir,” asked the now-indignant lady, “what do you take me for?”
“Madam,” Churchill coolly replied, “we’ve already established what you are. The question we’re presently attempting to answer is price.”
Unlike Sir Winston’s punch line, livestock producers know the price they have paid for two decades of favoring packers — independence.
In beef, four packers slaughter more than 80 percent of all U.S. heifers and steers annually, up from 50 percent in 1985. That market domination plays the key role in price determination.
Since 1980, the number of U.S. hog farmers has dropped from 667,000 to 67,000 while the percentage of hogs grown under contract to packers has risen from virtually zero to more than 70. Those two numbers are as related as ham and beans.
And poultry? Ninety-nine percent of growers produce under a packer contract or they simply don’t produce. None of this has happened in a vacuum so none of this is shocking.
What is shocking, however, is that the American public is horrified when the system it allowed packers to build breaks down as it did recently in California.
When time is money, even Old McDonald trades his pitchfork for a fork truck.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
© 2008 ag comm
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