Meatpacking companies' coronavirus-led price hike causes 'beef' with cattle ranchers

Ranchers say they're losing up to $400 per head of cattle

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into major meatpacking companies after cattle ranchers accused them of using the coronavirus crisis to drive down the price of cattle and raise the price of packaged beef.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association asked the USDA to investigate "whether inappropriate influence occurred in the markets," NCBA President Marty Smith wrote in an April letter to President Trump.

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Smith also referenced an August 2019 fire at a large packing plant in Holcomb, Kansas, his group says resulted in a similar price disparity.

Cattle graze on a pasture while a wind turbine stands in the distance at the Reading Wind Facility in Reading, Kan., on Monday, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

NCBA says the big four packing companies, Cargill, National Beef, Tyson Foods and JBS, control a majority of the market.

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The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a trade group that represents those companies, responded to NCBA's request for an investigation.

"We are working together with livestock organizations to ensure meat packing and processing plants continue to operate so that our products can come to market," NAMI President and CEO Julia Anna Potts said in a statement. "At the outset of this terrible pandemic, we had to switch some of our production from foodservice to retail. We are learning lessons every day in unchartered territory. Everyone benefits from a transparent marketing system, which we support, that ensures effective price discovery."

Ranchers say they're losing up to $400 per head of cattle.

Cattle slaughter fell 37 percent last week compared to the same period in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, as the meat industry attempts to find its new normal after several meat processing plants became coronavirus hotspots.

Many shoppers are finding that supermarkets are now limiting meat purchases.

Fox News' Mike Tobin contributed to this report.

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