DOUGLAS — One of the Big Four meatpackers is once again being accused of allegedly trying to fix prices and tampering with the meat market, leaving Converse County and other Wyoming lamb and sheep ranchers wondering if they’ll be able to sell their livestock come fall.
Last month, JBS USA Holdings purchased the bankrupt Mountain States Rosen (MSR) lamb processing and distribution processing plant across the street from a JBS beef packing facility in Greeley, Colorado.
MSR is the second largest lamb and sheep slaughter facility nationwide. If the plant no longer processes lamb and sheep, reports indicate it will leave at least 350,000 more lambs than what available processing facilities can handle, according to agricultural publication The Fence Post.
JBS said it plans to convert the plant to a ground beef and steaks processing facility and intends to stop processing lamb as soon as possible.
The Big Four – Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef – control more than 80 percent of the nation’s processing capacity and supply to the wholesale market and are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged antitrust activities within the meat packing industry.
Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, is a sheep rancher in Douglas. The state senator is worried about the repercussions of what the JBS takeover of MSR will do to the lamb/ sheep industry. Boner wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division Section Chief Robert Lepore July 30, imploring the Department of Justice to intervene.
“This court ordered transfer, if completed, will have widespread repercussions for sheep producers across the western United States, and will likely decimate the domestic industry as a whole. Mountain States Rosen is set up as a kill facility which performs initial processing of the carcasses before sending them to other facilities on the East Coast for further processing and packaging. Because of how this supply chain is structured, the future of lamb processing and packaging facilities on the Eastern Seaboard hang in the balance as well,” Boner wrote in the letter.
At a time when JBS and other major multinational packing companies are under congressional review and public scrutiny for alleged predatory business practices and market manipulation, Boner said it is appalling “that JBS finds itself in a position to severely undermine the American sheep industry with the forced acquisition of this plant.”
Should the MSR acquisition go through, JBS will cause serious, irreversible damage to American producers by importing cheap lamb and mutton from its processing locations in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the globe, he wrote.
Several agriculture agencies have reported JBS will seek to destroy any on-site lamb or sheep processing equipment at MSR as early as this week.
Boner requested DOJ consider the broad consequences of the acquisition, as well as a stay or injunction be put in place to allow for additional time for bidding by other entities who would have the intention of retaining the MSR plant in its current capacity as a sheep slaughter facility.
Boner isn’t the only politician upset, as U.S. Sen. John Barrasso R-Wyoming, joined several other senators that same day in issuing a letter against the sale with a missive to U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim.
Barrasso said he, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and 10 additional senators and representatives asked Delrahim to immediately open an investigation into the acquisition. He said MSR is a cooperative owned by 145-plus American families.
“We understand (the current buyer) is not the first potential buyer to express interest in the MSR facility. However, it appears after submitting a winning bid during bankruptcy proceedings, JBS is preparing to completely shut down all lamb processing at the site,” Barrasso’s letter reads.
The politicians urged Delrahim to immediately open an investigation and demand JBS cease any irreversible actions which might harm the ability of sheep ranchers to get their animals to market.
Likewise, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday.
Echoing much of tone of Barrasso’s and Boner’s letters, the governor also noted the “transaction marks the end of on-site lamb processing and represents further consolidation of the packing industry and increased foreign influence on American markets – a topic which can be taken up separately and has previously been brought to the attention of U.S. Attorney General (William) Barr.”
Gordon stated the sheep industry is increasingly being taken over by foreign suppliers from Brazil to China, including wool, pelts, meat and labor which are routinely outsourced.
“Today’s acquisition by JBS will impact sheep ranchers in at least 15 states who previously brought lambs to MSR. This clearly benefits JBS’ bottom line in terms of less competition and increases the likelihood of importing, rather than sourcing from the United States,” he wrote.
MSR had the ability to process up to 800,000 lambs annually and routinely processed 300,000 or more a year, Gordon stated.
The MSR cooperative employed 200 people.
“These families attempted to fix issues with packers themselves by starting MSR. They rose to become the second-largest lamb processor in the nation, and yet at the end of the day, they are trampled by a monolithic foreign corporation. I question whether or not this becomes an antitrust issue. We can dismantle AT&T but cannot look at the companies that supply food to our citizens?” he questioned.
Gordon posted his letter to Perdue on Twitter July 31, saying “Yesterday, I sent a letter to @SecretarySonny expressing my distress over the closure of the MSR lamb processing facility. The consolidation of our meat packing industry and takeover by foreign suppliers threatens both our agriculture producers and our commodity markets.”