They’ve got a big bone to pick.
Saskatchewan cattle ranchers are calling on the federal and provincial governments to launch an investigation into meat pricing, saying their members are losing money, while meat packing plants and retailers are seeing profits rise, and consumers are paying more money than ever for beef.
“We know what the retail price of beef is, and we know what we sell it for at our end. We’re trying to figure out just where did this money end up,” said Garner Deobald, president of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, in an interview.
The association argues that meat packing companies have deliberately understaffed their plants, in order to tighten the supply of meat — particularly beef — and push up prices.
“In the end, the consumer is the one that’s really had to bite the bullet. And we’re grateful the consumer has continued buying and eating beef,” said Deobald, a lifelong cattle rancher in southern Saskatchewan.
The push by the stock growers association comes on the heels of class-action lawsuits filed earlier this year in Quebec and B.C. on behalf of consumers who say they’re paying too much for meat.
In February, meat-packing giant JBS SA agreed to pay $52.5 million (U.S.) to settle litigation accusing meat-packing companies of conspiring to limit supply in the U.S.
Requests for comment to Cargill Canada and JBS Canada, which control the vast majority of Canada’s meat-packing industry, weren’t returned.
Retailers argue that they’re not to blame for higher prices.
“Any evidence we’ve seen is to the contrary. It’s pretty clear who is doing well, and that is the packers,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, which represents major grocery chains including Loblaw, Sobeys and Metro.
Wasylyshen pointed to a 2021 study done for the Beef Farmers of Ontario trade association by researcher Kevin Grier which showed that between 2016 and 2021, packers saw their share of the retail price of beef rise from 51 per cent to 59 per cent. Farmers saw their share fall slightly, from 41 per cent to 39 per cent.
While supply-chain issues have been cited by retailers and producers to justify the increased cost of food and many other consumer goods, Deobald isn’t sure all of the increases are justified.
“Right now there’s every excuse or reason to increase the price on everything. Whether some of that is unnecessary, I don’t know. With all the supply-chain problems, maybe it needs to be where it’s at, but we just don’t know for sure. And that’s what we’re trying to find out,” said Deobald.
Long-time food industry watcher Sylvain Charlebois agrees that some skepticism about price rises is justified.
“I do believe we’re able to explain some of the inflation that’s going on at the meat counter, but not all of it,” said Charlebois, director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “It’s not unusual to see companies take advantage of an inflationary environment. It’s happened in the past. This is not new stuff. Some of this might be greedflation. But we just don’t know for sure.”
Charlebois says investigating whether retailers are boosting prices unnecessarily will be a lot easier to do than probing the meat-packing industry, partly because Canada’s largest grocers are publicly-traded companies.
“To ask for an investigation is absolutely appropriate for the Canadian public. Whether or not they’ll find anything is a totally other question,” said Charlebois.
The Beef Farmers of Ontario applauded the push by their Saskatchewan counterparts for more transparency in wholesale meat pricing.
“Improved price transparency across the supply chain is something Beef Farmers of Ontario very much supports. We have requested that boxed beef price reporting be mandated and made public,” said BFO president Jack Chaffe in an emailed statement.
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