Independence Day is a time to celebrate American values — those the founders laid out all those July 4ths ago and the ones we’ve come to embrace today. The importance of fairness. Of a free market. Of America as a land of opportunity.
They are values well worth celebrating. But a hamburger is a terrible way to do it. Because the way that burger, bun, lettuce, tomato and all the other fixings got to your paper plate flies in the face of the values we cherish.
Herewith, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, “let facts be submitted to a candid world” about what a simple hamburger says about our nation’s ideals of freedom and enterprise.
The beef and our right to free enterprise
You won’t find the word “capitalism” in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but a free and open market economy is at the heart of both.
And the U.S. beef industry is a clear example of a restricted, tightly controlled market — with the control coming not from the government, but, as in the time of the Boston Tea Party, from private industry’s largest players. Every American-raised burger (or steak) comes from cattle on one of about 742,000 ranches across the country. Yet 85 percent of them will be slaughtered by one of just four companies.
This concentration is a problem for animals, whose chances of a humane slaughter diminish substantially as they crowd into increasingly mammoth facilities, and it is a problem for workers, who are forced to pick up the pace. It is risky for human health, since centralized processing makes it easy for meat contamination to spread far and wide.
And it is a serious problem for small ranchers. The livelihood of those who raise herds of less than 100 cattle — they constitute more than 90 percent of cattle ranchers — depends on slaughtering their stock within two weeks of the animals reaching prime weight. Yet access to slaughter and sale is tightly controlled by the meatpackers, whose market share is so large that they can dictate prices to ranchers, says Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF, an advocacy group for cattle ranchers.
“Competition in the industry is almost nonexistent,” Bullard says. “The economics is forcing people out of business.” Since 1980, 42 percent of ranchers have called it quits.
Concentration is also bad for shoppers. The retail price of beef has been inching up since the 1990s, but “the inflation-adjusted price farmers receive has been going down,” says Robert Taylor, an Auburn University expert on the beef industry. “In a competitive market, [that] would translate into retail food prices going down . . . and that has not happened.”
Indeed, the share going to ranchers has dropped by about 10 percent, according to an analysis by Taylor of U.S. Agriculture Department data.