Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s letter “Big Meat Takes Advantage of Small Producers” (Jan. 19) expresses concern about farmers and ranchers receiving declining shares of what consumers spend for meats. Such statistics are commonly said to support claims that large middlemen are exploiting small ranchers and farmers, exerting monopoly power against consumers or both. The Justice Department investigated such claims in 2010, while I was a staff economist there. My 2011 academic article “The Illusion of Anticompetitive Behavior Created by 100 Years of Misleading Farm Statistics” offers my conclusions from analyzing the data that USDA and other agencies had made public.
The fraction of consumer food spending that went to farmers declined substantially throughout the 20th century. That decline was fully explained, however, by the substantial movement of food preparation out of homes and into the marketplace. This was a result of women working more in the paid labor force, leaving them less time to spend on unpaid in-home food processing and preparation. The shifts to buying fully prepared food (eaten in restaurants or delivered) and purchasing more highly processed and prepared foods (e.g., filleted, closely trimmed and seasoned cuts of meat as opposed to slabs from a local butcher) reduced time spent in homes preparing meals.
With the marketplace doing more of the meat preparation that used to be done in homes, consumer spending on meat products rose. The decline in the share going to farmers and ranchers was not due to exploitation; it was a natural consequence of the increased marketplace participation of women. It is more properly celebrated as an economic advance by women than condemned as foul play by large companies.
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