A typical supermarket's meat counter displays a landscape of easy bounty: shrink-wrapped chops, cutlets, steaks, roasts, loins, burger meat, and more, almost all of it priced to move.
But the dizzying variety cloaks a disturbing uniformity. As the chart below shows, the great bulk of the meat consumed in the United States comes from just four large, powerful companies. These companies wield tremendous power to dictate not just what meat is available, but how that meat is raised.
For these "meat titans," turning a profit selling cheap meat means slashing the cost of doing business. And that in turn means paying their farmer-suppliers as little as possible for live animals, and paying workers as little as possible to slaughter and process them.
Since the meat market began its dramatic arc of consolidation three decades ago, farmers have had to choose between scaling up, to make up on volume what they were losing on price, or exit the business altogether. As a result, millions of small, diversified farms have closed down their animal-raising operations over the past 30 years, and surviving farms have mostly scaled up, specialized in one species, and placed that species by the thousands in vast confinements known as concentrated animal feedlot operations, or CAFOs. These fragrant, teeming spaces are notorious sources of pollution and social decay in rural areas.
Three of the companies that now dominate the U.S. meat market -- Tyson, Smithfield, and Cargill -- will be familiar to most readers; the fourth isn't exactly a household name. Over the last two years, a Brazilian beef-packing conglomerate called JBS has come barreling into the U.S. meat market, taking advantage of a weak dollar and economic troubles among top domestic players.
First, it bought up two prominent beef players, grabbing a nearly quarter of the U.S. beef market. Only Tyson, with 28 percent, has a larger share; the agribusiness giant Cargill is tied with JBS for second place, with 24 percent of the market. Then JBS swooped in and bought two-thirds of chicken giant Pilgrim's Pilgrim's pride, giving it 18 percent of the U.S. poultry market, second only to Tyson's 22 percent. In the course of its dealmaking, JBS also acquired some pork interests, taking 12 percent of that market -- putting it in third place behind Tyson (19 percent) and hog king Smithfield (26 percent).
After all of those U.S. deals -- and its recent takeover of its former Brazilian beef rival, Bertin -- JBS is now the largest industrial-meat purveyor on the planet, bigger in terms of global meat sales than even Tyson and Cargill.