According to Forbes, the White House, supported by independent economic analysts, has asserted a link between inflation and the dwindling number of food suppliers.
The House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee, chaired by Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, is expected to take on the topic in a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
The biggest consolidation has been in beef, where four companies now control 85 per cent of the U.S. market. Four pork and chicken companies supply 70 per cent and 54 per cent of their respective markets, while the number of supermarket chains has fallen by nearly one third in the past three decades, with four companies responsible for more than two thirds of sales.
Food prices grew 8 per cent in the past four weeks, according to a NielsenIQ scan of supermarkets nationwide. NielsenIQ predicts food-price increases will persist in the first half of 2022 and level out by the end of the year. That comes on the heels of a 5% rise last year.
“We’ve never seen that before,” said Peter Conti, NielsenIQ’s senior vice president. “Usually, there’s a price increase, five years go by, then another price increase. We’re seeing price increases six months apart. That’s got my attention. The frequency of price increases is unprecedented.”
President Joe Biden appointed antitrust crusader Lina Khan to head the Federal Trade Commission, the government’s main antitrust agency, promising to take on antitrust with more fervour. Lisa Khan said little on the subject of Big Food.
Consolidation has the attention of the Justice Department, which recently reached a settlement with Pilgrim’s Pride over charges of price fixing. The top 20 chicken companies are responsible for about 99% of commercial chicken sold. Of those 20, 6 have settled private cases totaling $150 million from suppliers and customers. Tyson Foods settled for $221.5 million. Hundreds of other lawsuits from fast-food chains, grocers and other customers will continue to play out in courts for years.
The Justice Department has been reviewing the $4.5 billion acquisition of third-largest chicken processor Sanderson Farms by a joint venture owned by grain traders Cargill, the country’s biggest privately held company, and Continental Grain, which owns chicken processor Wayne Farms.
The Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry into “sky-high prices” at the end of November and ordered nine large retailers, including Amazon, Walmart and Kroger, as well as wholesalers and consumer companies like Kraft-Heinz, to answer detailed questions as part of the investigation.
The Big Four seed companies became the Big Two: Dow Chemical and DuPont unveiled a $130 billion megamerger in 2015, followed by Bayer acquiring Monsanto for $63 billion.
And with organic farming accounting for less than 1 per cent of US cropland, synthetic-fertiliser manufacturers have become powerful. There are only two companies that supply North America with potash, the commodity potassium-based fertiliser: Nutrien Limited and the Mosaic Co.
Four firms control more than 75 per cent of the production of all nitrogen-based fertiliser.