WASHINGTON — The price of meat on grocery store shelves has become a subject of increasing debate, but one liberal group says the Covid-19 pandemic and wages aren't to blame.
Instead, the group Accountable.US found meatpackers have paid hundreds of million of dollars in penalties for price fixing and are pointing to that as the cause.
Republicans have increasingly pointed to consumer prices and inflation as evidence that Democratic economic policies, including pumping trillions of dollars of stimulus into the economy to offset pandemic problems.
A review by Accountable.US found that the biggest meat processing companies have all recently been subject to serious price-fixing lawsuits, with several already agreeing to pay at least $400 million in fines and settlements in recent years for manipulating prices, and even colluding with one another to do so.
"When meat packer CEOs are still living high on the hog after agreeing to pay $400 million in fines and settlements for manipulating prices in recent years, consumers know who to really blame for ridiculous meat prices," Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig said in a statement.
Major meatpackers included in the Accountable.US review are Smithfield Foods, JBS, National Beef Packing Co., Tyson Foods and Cargill. The companies have all denied wrongdoing.
In October, JBS and its subsidiaries agreed to pay over $110 million to settle price-fixing allegations, according to documents compiled by Accountable.US. Tyson Foods agreed to a $221.5 million price-fixing settlement and continues to face lawsuits from major food sellers such as Walmart, McDonald's and Sysco alleging price inflation.
Additionally, the review found Smithfield Foods paid $83 million to settle price-fixing allegations.
"It’s important to note that Smithfield denied any wrongdoing in settling the private party class action litigation cited in this group’s report," said Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield, in an emailed statement.
Monroe pointed to inflationary pressure facing all sectors of the economy, severe labor shortages on farms, and a declining rural population, which exemplifies the need for visa reform to improve access to foreign-born workers.
The White House addressed the issue of the rising meat prices earlier this month and said it would take "strong actions" to crack down on illegal price fixing, enforce antitrust laws, and bring more transparency to the meat-processing industry. Since December, prices for beef have risen by 14 percent, pork by 12.1 percent and poultry by 6.6 percent, according to the White House.
"Just four large conglomerates control the majority of the market for each of these three products, and the data show that these companies have been raising prices while generating record profits during the pandemic," White House officials said in a blog post.
Tyson denied the claims by Accountable.US, in an email to NBC, and pointed to its statement they put out on the White House's announcement, in which Tyson rejected the administration's conclusions.
"As we have explained in great detail to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, in testimony provided in August 2021, which can be accessed by clicking here, the increase in the price of beef, in particular, is due to unprecedented market conditions," said Tyson in a press release Sept. 8.
Gross profits for some of the leading beef, poultry and pork processors are at their highest levels in history, and the first half of 2021 were the most profitable quarters in history for some of the processors, with net income for many of these companies on pace to reach historic highs as well.
The Justice Department is conducting a joint investigation with the Agriculture Department on price fixing in the chicken processing industry, which has already yielded a $107 million guilty plea by Pilgrim’s Pride and numerous other indictments.