OKANOGAN — President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep red meat and poultry processing facilities open during the coronavirus pandemic.
But for some ranchers, the shortage of meat on store shelves is an indication that meat processing procedures need reform.
Steve McLaughlin, a retired U.S. Navy commander and former state commissioner of public lands candidate, said Washington state beef producers need priority.
“The first solution is Washington cattle producers should be at the head of the line to sell beef in Washington state,” he said. “In order to provide relief to cattle producers across the country, all sales and imports of beef to these packing plants (should) come from U.S. sources.”
He said foreign beef should not be imported until the producers can no longer meet the demands of consumers.
“Not from Brazil. Not from anyplace else, until the cattle producers cannot meet the demands of the industry,” he said. “And only then should foreign beef be allowed.”
As packing facilities temporarily close because of the virus, a break in the supply chain has cattle producers scratching their heads as to what the next step will be.
“Right now, we’ve got most of the capacity in the country shut down, which cannot move from the cattle producer to market,” he said, adding when animals are ready to go to slaughter, with no processors around, producers “dig a pit.”
According to Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-Calf USA) just four major beef packers control 85 percent of all the cattle raised specifically for beef production.
Take Smithfield Foods Inc. in South Dakota, for example. It is a subsidiary of WH Group of China. And JBS USA Holdings Inc. is a subsidiary of JBS S. A. of Brazil.
R-CALF is the largest producer-only lobbying and trade association representing U.S. cattle producers, and is based in Billings, Mont.
“R-CALF USA has urged congressional and regulatory reforms of the nation’s beef supply chain for decades, including in a 2013 South Dakota Law Review article in which it stated the industry underwent a period of ‘merger mania’ from 1980 through 2010,” a statement from the organization said. “R-CALF USA argued then that this level of concentration was the highest level of concentration of any industry in the United States.”
The group drafted a letter to the Trump administration, urging a review to consider whether a physical and geographical restructuring of the meat packing industry is required to disaggregate and decentralize beef processing capacity.
“Until this current crisis is over, and the president and Congress can conduct such a review and develop such a strategic plan, our nation must administer triage to ensure that our highly centralized and concentrated beef processing system keeps providing our citizens with nutritious food,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard. “We simply must keep the current system running through this crisis. And that is precisely what the president did, and we support it.”
Local rancher Rod Haeberle agreed that the industry needs reform.
“At one time, Washington state had its own state meat inspectors. There were no federal (inspectors),” Haeberle said. “The state always had trouble funding their salaries, so, the federal government came along at one point and said, ‘we’ll take that off the state’s hands.’”
He said the plan initially sounded decent, but “it was the worst thing that ever happened for the meat industry.”
He said many of the major processors used imported meats, driving down the value of true U.S. beef.
“They’ve been sending cattle out of Brazil into Mexico. And once they get to Mexico, then we import them by the hundreds of thousands,” he said. “Once they come out of Mexico, into the United States, they go into a quarantine feed lot for 30 days. Once the hide comes off, they’re stamped with a USDA stamp.”
“I’m a strong believer in country of origin labeling, and I’m a big believer in state of origin labeling,” McLaughlin said. “The food for the United States is a key resource under the Department of Homeland Security. There’s, like, 18 critical infrastructures and key resources. And food supply resources is one of them.”
“I think it’s showing some weaknesses in the system,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. “I think what we need to focus on is more of a local model.
“I think we need to be operating on a smaller, more independent, local market,” he said. “I think people are more and more interested in knowing where their food is coming from.”
During the Legislative session earlier this year, Kretz introduced a bill that would require meat to display a country of origin stamp. It passed the state House and went to the appropriations committee before being dispelled.
“The beef industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” he said. “Even before COVID, they had created a system where they had a stranglehold on the market. How do you destroy the beef market here and still have record profits? Then, throw in there the wolves, and I’ll be surprised if anyone is alive a year from now.”
In Washington state, there are only four slaughterhouses –in Stanwood, Wallula, Woodland and Toppenish.
Because of coronavirus outbreaks at some of the major packers, cattle are now backed up, creating a break in the supply chain.
“The red meat industry stops, the backup of the cattle herd starts, and then people like me, producers, are screwed,” Haeberle said.