While ordinary Americans are struggling to adapt in order to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus, corporate food and agriculture giants are scheming about how to deepen their hold on the food system and avoid important food safety regulations under the guise of responding to the pandemic.
Big Ag is using the coronavirus pandemic to line their pockets
Early on, we predicted that big food and agricultural giants would use the coronavirus pandemic to further consolidate the industry, to profit from panic, and to further weaken food safety standards. And that’s exactly what is happening. On March 30th , the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reversed a policy that, as a response to COVID-19, had helped preserve the thoroughness of some merger review processes.
At a time when the pandemic has exposed such significant vulnerabilities in our food system, retracting this common sense policy and once again allowing faster review of mergers would only harm consumers who may see fewer, but more expensive, options at the grocery store. This would also drive down the prices farmers receive and slash wages for food workers. So who benefits? Big Food and Big Ag.
All sectors of our food system are already controlled by a few powerful players. For example, the top four beef-packing firms slaughter 80% of feedlot beef cattle. Extreme consolidation allows these meatpackers to have an astonishing level of control over the food we eat. It is outrageous that the very agencies that are supposed to protect us from such market distortion are now relaxing their safeguards.
Meanwhile, Congress is also largely ignoring small and independent producers in the federal responses to coronavirus. Recent stimulus bills include funds for agriculture—but provides U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (a disciple of Big Ag’s “get big or get out” mantra) broad authority for how those funds are spent. We hope those funds go to farmer’s markets, regional agriculture hubs and independent farms struggling to survive. However, we predict they’ll go to Smithfield, Perdue, and Tyson instead. This is not right.
Mega-mergers and deregulations will make our food unsafe
Big Ag, with its poor food safety track record, endangers our health and safety even more during the coronavirus pandemic. The unsanitary conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, their gutting of safeguards and their dangerous business practices make us sicker. It’s well-documented that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, transferred to humans from animals living in crowded, unsanitary conditions—like so many other historic pandemics that have significantly endangered human health.
However, Big Food and Ag are also using the crisis as an opportunity to further weaken food safety standards. Just in the last two weeks, a massive Foster Farms poultry slaughterhouse applied for and received a “regulatory waiver” that would allow it to increase line speed and decrease its number of federal inspectors. USDA also recently granted a regulatory waiver to a beef slaughter plant in Kansas to “self-regulate” and take over inspection functions normally performed by trained government inspectors. The fox is now officially guarding the henhouse.
Elected officials need to protect us during pandemics instead of Big Ag’s profits
We will emerge on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic—but with a food system that is even more consolidated and deregulated, unless our elected officials block it. We need our leaders to overhaul the fundamental structure of our food system so that small, independent farms can thrive and so that our food supply is reliable and safe.
This crisis must serve as a turning point in restructuring our food system. For instance, in the face of this pandemic, local and regional farmers and markets are providing fresh, local food staples that large grocery chains are struggling to supply. It’s time to transition to a regionally-based food system with stronger food safety standards. Federal legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker, the Farm System Reform Act of 2019, lays out a path to do just that by creating a system that works for consumers and farmers—not for corporations.
Throughout this crisis and beyond, we will continue to mobilize support for this common-sense federal legislation that would have made our food system less vulnerable during this pandemic, and that will make us safer during future disasters. We will fight against megamergers, advocate for local and regionally-based food systems, and demand stronger food safety standards. This pandemic has made it clear that our work to protect our food supply has never been more critical.