Is more competition in business good or bad?
That question has raged through the meat industry since the federal government proposed regulations last year that could reshape the sector.
"I've been in this job for 20 years and there are few watershed moments that stand out for the level of concern they generate, and this is one of them," said Janet Riley, senior vice president of the American Meat Institute.
The beef, pork and poultry industries have consolidated over the past three decades.
In the beef industry, for example, just four packers, including Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions, purchase about 80 percent of the beef on large U.S. feedlots.
The number of cattle producers has fallen from 1.6 million in 1980 to 950,000 today. The number of hog farms has dropped from 660,000 to 71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The 2008 farm bill required the USDA to promote competition within the industry. Last year, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack proposed rules that he said would do that just that.
Consolidation, he said, has given the packers ever greater control over the producers and allowed them to keep a larger share of revenue.
This loss of bargaining power, Vilsack argued, is one of the big reasons livestock farmers have struggled financially in recent decades — with tens of thousands forced out of the business.
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