The beef packingindustry has evolved dramatically during BEEF magazine’s tenure: from swinging carcasses to case-ready beef. While the fundamentals of the business — turning a live animal into edible form — are still present, just about everything else is different. Beef packers of 50 years ago would marvel at the way in which today’s packers capture and add value to every conceivable part of the carcass.
The other huge change is structural. Until the 1960s, meatpacking plants operated alongside large stockyards in cities like Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, East St. Louis and Denver. But packing plants began to locate closer to where the grain-fed cattle were finished, a trend that accelerated with the entry of Iowa Beef Packers (IBP). IBP began with a single plant in the middle of a Denison, IA, cornfield in 1960. Remarkably, it still operates as a slaughter-only operation.
In tandem with IBP’s entry came the development of boxed beef (cutting up carcasses into sub-primals and shipping them vacuum-packaged in a box). The swinging carcass business was in retreat from then on. A more recent trend is the move to case-ready beef — mostly for ground beef, but also for some cuts.
Paralleling IBP’s emergence was that of Monfort. Family patriarch Warren Monfort was a pioneer of modern cattle feeding. His son Ken expanded the business into beef processing with the construction of a plant in Greeley, CO, in 1960. With this move, Monfort was also a pioneer in moving plants closer to the source of cattle, fabricating carcasses into boxed beef, and being the first to adopt portion control.
Monfort expanded in 1979 when it bought a plant in Grand Island, NE. But a strike that year at its Greeley plant nearly put Monfort out of business. The company rebounded, and logged $1 billion in sales in 1982 for the first time. But Ken was a realist and knew the company’s near-death experience might recur. So he sold the business to food company ConAgra Inc.
ConAgra eventually tired of the commodity nature of its red meat business, (which included pork) and in 2002, sold it to two private investment firms for $1.4 billion. The entity became Swift and Co. and remained under that name until JBS SA of Brazil bought it in 2007.
Another big name in beef processing, Cargill, had its genesis in the 1970s. MBPXL was formed in 1974 by the merger of Kansas Beef Industries, Wichita, KS, and Missouri Beef Packers, Plainview, TX. Cargill acquired MBPXL in 1978, and for the next decade bought and sold plants. It renamed the business Excel Corp. in 1982, and Cargill Meat Solutions in 2004.
Meanwhile, as a publicly owned company, IBP became increasingly frustrated at seeing its stock undervalued by investors. So it merged with poultry processor Tyson Foods in 2001.
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The fourth-largest processor, National Beef, morphed over a 14-year period from being owned by producer-cooperative Farmland Industries into being majority-owned by producer group U.S. Premium Beef (USPB). The beef industry’s latest change of ownership came in December 2011, when USPB and National’s other owners agreed to sell 79% of the company to the investment firm Leucadia National Corp.
The 1990s saw beef processors challenged by food-safety issues, notably involving E. coli O157:H7. Companies as large as BeefAmerica ($1 billion-plus in sales) were forced out of business, as were several family-owned, single-plant operations, which were sold to larger packers.
Packers literally have spent billions of dollars on food safety since the 1993 E. coli tragedy at Jack in the Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. These and other added costs, plus a shrinking cattle population, are why concentration levels in beef processing have remained the same since 1995. It is also why it’s so difficult for new companies to enter the meat processing business.
Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com). See his weekly cattle market roundup each Friday afternoon at beefmagazine.com.
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