America's growing beef with hamburgers

  • Article by: TRACIE MCMILLAN , Special to the Washington Post
  • Updated: June 30, 2012 - 2:26 PM

That burger, bun and other fixings flies in the face of the values we cherish.


McDonalds' Big Mac hamburger

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Startribune

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I dare you to celebrate the Fourth of July without a hamburger.

What food better conveys the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than an all-American beef patty, grilled in the sunny confines of a grassy backyard?

A burger on the grill says: I have the day off to celebrate this great country, and I am going to relish it.
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.

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.

But 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, ⅛that⅜ 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.

Consider how the beef industry echoes the causes of the Boston Tea Party, which rose up to protest not merely new taxes in the Tea Act but also the monopoly the law gave to a private corporation, the British East India Company. Burgers' dominance of our celebratory cookout menus is not a problem, but the monopoly enjoyed by just four companies in selling them is.

It's a safe bet that at least one in four hamburger buns doled out at holiday barbecues this summer will come from Wal-Mart. The discounter-turned-grocery-behemoth controls at least a quarter of food sales nationwide, according to an analysis of USDA and Wal-Mart data.

In 29 metropolitan areas, it controls more than 50 percent, say analysts at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents supermarket workers. Wal-Mart has won that rank through low prices, with at least one unintended and deeply un-American effect: It has helped put smaller farmers out of business, in part by manufacturing food products - including burger buns.

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