Consolidation has placed key decisions about the US food system in the hands of a few large companies, giving them considerable influence to lobby policymakers and influence media coverage. Industry consolidation is hard to track. Many subsidiary firms are often controlled by one parent corporation and engage in “contract packing,” in which a single processing plant produces identical foods that are then sold under dozens of different brands, including labels that compete directly against each other. Shutdowns at meatpacking plants due to COVID-19 infections among workers have shown how much of the US food supply flows through a small number of facilities.
Research shows that retail concentration correlates with higher prices for consumers. Some corporate leaders have abused their power, chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges and was fined $110.5 million. Meatpacking company PBS settled a $24.5 million pork price-fixing lawsuit, and farmers won a class action settlement against peanut-shelling companies Olam and Birdsong. With few players, companies simply match each other’s price increases rather than competing with them.
To create a more resilient food system equitable distribution of power is needed. The government can help by adapting farm support programs to target farms and businesses that serve local and regional markets. State and federal incentives can build community- or cooperative-owned farms and processing and distribution businesses. Ventures like these could provide economic development opportunities while making the food system more resilient.