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Unsanitized: J.D. Scholten on How to Revitalize Our Broken Food Systems

On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that the press reported as intended to force open meatpacking plants using the Defense Production Act. It doesn’t actually force open meatpacking plants. It delegates to the Secretary of Agriculture and basically tells him to do something about it. It was more of a typical PR ploy from Trump, to show his base he was working tirelessly to protect their precious hamburgers.

But there was one part of the order worth highlighting. In the policy section, the order notes: “closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day.” You may reasonably ask why we’ve created a situation where one processing plant closure due to an infectious disease can take that much food out of the system. Maybe that was the problem all along.

J.D. Scholten thinks so. He was the populist Democratic candidate who almost defeated Steve King in the deep-red 4th Congressional District in Iowa in 2018. He’s running in a possible rematch with King this year, and his home in Sioux City is situated in the U.S. county with the most rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in America. Why? “Sioux City has been an immigrant meatpacking town since the 1880s,” Scholten told me in an interview. “When my family moved her in 1984, our first family photo, which was our Christmas card that year, was in front of the stockyard plant.”

Meat processing plants are hotspots for the outbreak because of a reluctance on the part of plant managers to keep workers safe; one lawsuit indicates that workers were not given time to wash their hands or wipe their noses. Scholten visited a Tyson plant in Dakota City, Nebraska on Tuesday, where managers were testing every employee, but still telling them to work, with the test results not due back for three days. Late on Wednesday, Tyson finally closed the plant for four days.

The backlog of meat processing squeezes farmers and ranchers, who have to either continue to feed their stock, sell them to someone who can, or undergo mass kills. But Scholten points out that the pandemic only increased their existing hardship. “Just last week, packed beef was going for $100 more than live cattle,” he said. “Meat is going off the shelf at higher prices but the farmers aren’t getting a higher price. I know there’s talk about farmers and workers, but it’s both against the packers right now.”

Meatpacking is a deeply concentrated industry. Four Big Ag monopolies control 85 percent of the nation’s beef, and 50 plants produce 98 percent of the supply. Where there were once 10,000 slaughterhouses, there are now about one-tenth. This forces ranchers to accept low prices if they want their cattle to get to market. It also hollows out communities by consolidating the skilled processing labor instead of spreading it out county by county. “That’s a lot of rural development jobs,” Scholten said. “It’s led to rural poverty and a decline in the rural economy.”

Two of those big beef companies are Brazilian conglomerates. One in four hogs in the U.S. is owned by a Chinese-owned firm like Smithfield Foods. And a lot of this product doesn’t end up on American tables. “Sixty percent of apple juice is made in China,” Scholten noted. “Here in our district there are apple orchards all over the place, and we’re not an apple area. All these policies, geared toward international trade, we’re losing sight of our base of agriculture and our food system. Who are we doing this for?”

Scholten explains that 85 percent of all food in Iowa is imported, which is crazy if you drive around the state and see endless crops. There are only two “farm to table” restaurants in his entire district, a district made up of essentially all farms. Even local groceries have been overrun by Dollar General, which doesn’t sell fresh meat and produce. Decades of prioritizing outsourcing and enabling market dominance has destroyed the local and regional culture of our food system, and ruined self-sufficiency, just like supply chains for medical equipment or defense products or almost everything else.

In the short term, Scholten wants to see short-term coordination, to end the absurdity of millions struggling to find food in understocked food banks while farmers bulldoze crops and throw away milk. He wants significant protections for food system workers, too, so they don’t have to choose between risking their life and losing a paycheck. But in the long term, Scholten proposes serious antitrust enforcement to break up Ag monopolies (modernizing the antimonopoly Packers and Stockyards Act, which turns 100 next year, tops the list), and returning to a sustainable local supply system. “We need to implement farm to nursing home, farm to prison, farm to community schools,” he said. “Ag is almost all policy driven. We can create that market and let it grow. And allow more money to stay in the communities that grow the stuff.”

Written by David Dayen