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Farm and Food File

By Staff | Jun 8, 2020

Every Memorial Day, my long-time friend David would honor both his family and fellow Vietnam War veterans with a visit to his hometown cemetery, an hour’s drive west of St. Louis.

Once there, and with the help of his siblings and cousins, David would mow the grass in the family plot, scrub its granite and brass grave markers, and place colorful, fist-sized peonies on the graves of those he knew and those he didn’t know.

Rain or shine, whether he was living in Miami or Tokyo, David tried to spend every Memorial Day doing what he believed was his sacred duty: remembering the dead and what they had sacrificed so he could stand that day, sweaty but free, in their collective, remembered presence.

David had sacrificed to be there, also. Two tours of duty in Vietnam as an aircraft carrier-based medic meant that he and his crewmates were always in danger whenever they helicoptered to rescue downed pilots on land or sea. The high-risk escapades also gave him a saucy, life-long swagger.

The war and its divisive effects on the United States never left him. In fact, he left the United States and lived in Japan for nearly 20 years because of it. Japan brought him peace, a family, and a career as an international trade consultant fluent in Japanese just as U.S. business ties to Asia began to bloom.

Interestingly, the most lucrative, far-reaching American contacts he made were in the-then exploding U.S.-Asia grain trade. Investment money and U.S. ag exports were flooding Japan and South Korea and were about to get a toehold in China and smooth, charming David was smack in the middle of it all.

He returned to America in the late 1980s when the grain giants expanded into ethanol, fructose, and several never-heard-of-before biotech processes-“bugs,” they called them-to “engineer” new items like lysine, a livestock feed supplement, and citric acid, a food additive.

Then, in 1993, a bolt of lightning struck farm country: The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it was investigating Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for allegedly fixing prices in some of its markets. Even more incredible, DOJ confirmed that its evidence included video and audio tapes made by an ADM insider, an executive named Mark Whitacre.

Whitacre had two weaknesses no corporate mole should possess: he couldn’t stop talking and his best friend in the grain trade was David. Whatever Whitacre knew or learned, David soon would know or learn.

And, soon thereafter, David’s contacts at the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets would know.

The ADM story, however, was unlike most tales of corporate wrongdoing. It was a multi-layered, multi-year saga of power and corruption that claimed the careers of both ADM executives who lived it and journalists who covered it because the truth was often hidden in a haystack of lies.

One of its biggest victims was David. He came to believe that the Justice Department had intentionally botched an even bigger case against ADM because of the company’s legendary political connections. To him, it was 1968 all over again; the nation had betrayed its values-and him-and he slowly sank into a sea of bitterness and paranoia.

The last time my family visited him before his Aug. 2015 death, I spotted a sawed-off, 12-gauge shotgun painted to match the living room wall it was leaning against making it-in plain sight-all but invisible.

Why? I asked.

“Because,” he said, “you never know.”

Maybe not, but I do know that when his fear and anger at individuals replaced his love and duty for his nation, this honorable lion became a gun-hiding mouse. It was a tragic unwinding; one that no one would wish on anyone or any friend.

Or any nation.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

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Farm and Food File

By Staff | Jun 8, 2020

If you’ve ever butchered anything from a rabbit to a hog-and butchered is the right word, not the bleached “harvested”-you know there will be blood. Butchering, after all, is a bloody business.

While 95 percent of Americans are carnivores, it’s a safe bet that nearly 99.9 percent of them haven’t thought much about where their meat comes from or how it gets to them so well, clean.

Covid-19 changed that willful blindness and put America’s industrialized and exploitive meat delivery system on the front page of every newspaper because it wasn’t just killing hogs, cattle, and poultry. It was-is-also killing the people doing most of the butchering.

As of May 26, according to in-depth reporting by Leah Douglas of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, or FERN, 73 U.S. “food processing” workers have died since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in America. Sixty-seven of them, or nine out of 10, were meatpacker employees.

In the broader picture, reports Douglas, of the 19,785 food processing workers that tested positive for the virus, 17,893 of them, again, nine out of 10, worked in animal disassembly-or meatpacking-factories.

Meat industry titans know they have a terrible problem. Most are now spending mega-millions on worker facemasks and shields, workplace dividers, personal health monitoring, and other long overdue measures to protect the health and safety of its shoulder-to-shoulder workforce.

All the money, monitoring, and motivation, however, will never overcome the weakest link in today’s meatpacking chain: its success rises and falls on a river of quickly trainable, overwhelmingly immigrant labor who are low-wage cogs in an international protein machine oiled mostly with blood.

And little of this is by accident. Since the early 1980s, meatpackers have used two powerful tools, industrial innovation and the lack of government oversight-and, more often than not, government complicity-to regain the dominating market power they enjoyed a century ago.

In fact, “Exactly 100 years ago,” noted Politico on May 25 ” the five biggest U.S. meatpackers were responsible for 82 percent of the beef market.” After years of litigation-and decades of new “competition” because of government intervention-“the top four firms controlled only 36 percent of cattle slaughter by 1980.”

Then came the near-complete abandonment of corporate ag antitrust action by the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump administrations. When it comes to antitrust, White Houses aren’t white, red, or blue; they’re green-as in green lights.

No surprise then that now the top four beef packers again ” control about 85 percent of the U.S. (beef) market,” noted Politico. The market concentration is similar for poultry and pork slaughterers.

Equally impressive is the industry’s political power. For almost 30 years, the federal government has conceded to meatpackers’ calls for cheaper, in-house inspection regimes, the speeding up of kill lines to increase throughput, and cuts in the number of federal meat inspectors.

That power was on full display when the White House empowered Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, through the Defense Production Act, to get at-risk meatpacker workers back on the job, pandemic or not, a month ago. Today, U.S. meat plants are running at 91 percent capacity.

And for what?

Definitely not for the benefit of independent hog farmers, cattle ranchers or feedlot finishers. In May, livestock industry groups forecast pandemic-fueled, 2020 hog losses at $5 billion and cattle losses at $13.5 billion.

And that’s only if a second round of Covid-19-a likely possibility, warn experts-doesn’t slam livestock growers this winter.

Whatever happens in the market, Congress needs to reexamine meatpacker concentration after allocating some of the $3 trillion of government Covid cash to build express lanes for smaller, local, independent meatpackers to form and grow.

Congress did it for ethanol and corn farmers and it can do it for livestock and poultry farmers. Call it what it is: job creation, rural development, smart use of taxpayer money.

Let’s just stop calling it harvesting because, in fact, it’s a very bloody business.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

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