Rising Meat Prices

Matt Lee poses inside Save More Meats in Pacifica. The butcher shop was the scene of a press event last week that brought attention to the market forces at work on the price of meats during the pandemicMonday, Sept. 20, 2021. Adam Pardee / Tribune

David Canepa, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, took a call from an unhappy constituent complaining about the skyrocketing price of meat. Following up, Canepa queried President Joe Biden’s administration and learned the White House has plans to change the consumer’s experience surrounding meat processing.

Large price increases for beef, pork and poultry are driving record price increases for consumers at the grocery store. The White House addressed the issue on Sept. 8 in a briefing called “Addressing concentration in the meat-processing industry to lower food prices for American families.” This year, prices for beef have risen by 14 percent, pork by 12.1 percent and poultry by 6.6 percent, the White House said.   

The Biden administration announced plans earlier this month to give $1.4 billion in COVID-19 stimulus money to small meat producers. The White House said it would take strong actions to crack down on illegal price fixing, enforce antitrust laws, and bring more transparency to the meat-processing industry to create a more competitive food supply chain. Together beef, chicken and pork account for half of the price increases for food at home since December 2020, according to the administration.

The Biden administration wants to get ahead of climate change by supporting ranchers and farmers during the effects of extreme weather and to work with Congress to make cattle markets more transparent and fair.

Canepa held a press conference at Save More Meats in Pacifica on Sept. 11 to draw attention to these issues. Save More Meats, owned by brothers Matthew and Kevin Lee, has been open since 1955. Save More Meats purchases beef from California-based Harris Ranch. 

“A majority of the meat packers are owned by four companies and that’s the problem. This is price gouging,” Canepa said.

“There is a monopoly on beef in the United States who are profiting from

the pandemic, and I applaud the Biden administration for acknowledging this,” he said. “I am urging him to level the playing field by providing stimulus checks to smaller meat producers and to address what his administration calls ‘illegal price fixing’ by the nation’s four largest meatpackers. I also encourage consumers to check out local butcher shops, which may have lower prices because they sell more locally sourced meats.”

In 1977, the largest four beef packing firms controlled just 25 percent of the market, compared with 82 percent today, according to federal officials.

Save More Meats is experiencing a supply chain problem, said Matt Lee.

“My sales representative from Harris Ranch said prices are high because they don’t have the labor to do the work,” he said. “They are trying to keep up with demand. The whole thing is that the suppliers are always running behind. The main items they get out as best they can.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the four largest meat suppliers in the United States are Cargill, a global commodity trader based in Minnesota; Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat company by sales; Brazil-based JBS SA, the world’s biggest meatpacker; and National Beef Packing Company, under the control of Brazilian beef producer Marfrig Global Foods SA.  

Canepa said it was ironic that the big meatpackers received stimulus checks at the beginning of the pandemic and now say they don’t have enough workers.

“We want to make people aware those four companies are put on notice. People are watching them,” Canepa said. “We should be investing in those smaller companies to diversify and even the playing field. The small ranchers are getting the short end of the stick.”

Jane Northrop has covered Pacifica for the Pacifica Tribune since 1996. She has won first place John Swett Awards from the California Teachers Association for her coverage of education.

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