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Celebrating Five Years of Food & Power
A little more than five years ago, the Open Markets project at New America launched Food & Power, a first-of-its-kind website providing resources and original reporting on monopoly power in the food system. Since then, thanks to your readership, we have dramatically grown our biweekly Food & Power newsletter.
Today, we are thrilled to relaunch Food & Power with a brand-new look and website [[link removed]]. We’re also looking back at the past five years in a Q&A with Food & Power’s founder, Leah Douglas.
Additionally, the Open Markets Institute would like to invite you to a virtual briefing on a new report [[link removed]], “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts,” written by leading food systems expert Dr. Mary Hendrickson and commissioned by the Family Farm Action Alliance. On Thursday, Nov. 19 from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern, Dr. Hendrickson will present her latest research on corporate concentration, with opening remarks from Sen. Cory Booker. More details below.
Explore the new F&P website [[link removed]]
But First: Major Legal Updates
Last Wednesday, JBS reached a settlement with a class of pork buyers who accused the world’s largest meatpacker of conspiring with other pork processors to cut back production in order to raise the price of pork [[link removed]]. Hormel, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods also face charges. JBS’s settlement comes weeks after its subsidiary, Pilgrim’s Pride, reached a $110 million plea deal [[link removed]] with the Justice Department for price-fixing charges in the poultry industry. JBS’s latest settlement expands price-fixing penalties to pork. The terms of JBS’s settlement with pork buyers are not yet public.
Washington will be the first state to grant farmworkers overtime protections through the courts, after a state Supreme Court ruling last Thursday [[link removed]]. Federal and state laws exempt most farmworkers from basic worker protections, including overtime pay. Maryland, Minnesota, New York, California, and now Washington are exceptions.
Tyson will face a jury trial over allegations [[link removed]] that the dominant poultry packer made unfair growing contracts with poultry farmers and violated the Packers & Stockyards Act, following a federal judge’s ruling late last month [[link removed]]. This will be the first Packers & Stockyards violation to reach a jury trial in more than a decade.
Family Farm Action Alliance and the Open Markets Institute are excited to host a virtual briefing on a new report, “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts,” written by Dr. Mary Hendrickson, a leading food systems expert and professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri.
This groundbreaking report, commissioned by Family Farm Action Alliance, outlines the state of concentration in the agri-food system and what happens when a few hands control the ways that billions of consumers, farmers, and farmworkers work and eat.
To learn more, join this presentation by Dr. Hendrickson, with remarks from Sen. Cory Booker, from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern on Nov. 19.
Register Here [[link removed]]
Q&A with Food & Power’s Founder, Leah Douglas
Leah Douglas is an associate editor and staff writer for the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). Douglas’s writing on food, agriculture, and land policy has appeared in The Nation, Time, CNN, and more. Most recently, Douglas created an interactive map to track COVID-19 cases among food industry workers, and this critical database has been cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC Nightly News, and The Associated Press, among others, as well as by policymakers such as Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
But before Douglas reported for FERN, she built and launched the Food & Power website and newsletter five years ago. In honor of Food & Power’s five-year anniversary and relaunch, current F&P reporter Claire Kelloway spoke with Douglas about how the publication started and Douglas’s work since then. (Responses and questions have been edited for length.)
What is Food & Power’s origin story, how did it get started?
There was a lot of conversation around the issue [of consolidation in agriculture] and decades of work on it in different advocacy groups and among farmers. … There had been some really excellent books and other materials … but if you were just fishing around and wanted to understand the issue better, there wasn’t anywhere to go. … So the project was to try to build that central place where people could brush up on facts and figures and get some context for how consolidation as a phenomenon was shaping both agricultural policy and also production and producers and workers.
Is there a story you wrote that you think was particularly underrated?
The first one that comes to mind is some stories I did on private equity roll-ups [[link removed]], which has become increasingly relevant … It was on my mind [after] the news about the Dunkin [takeover] by this big private equity firm [[link removed]]. … It’s a really challenging story to tell … because the whole point of private equity is to conceal and limit how much information is available, which makes it obviously very difficult to report on. And at the time, I remember there were so few resources available to really understand what private equity is and how it works and why these companies were being consolidated that way. But I think that’s been really prescient because that trend has only intensified and continued, and when we hear about mergers and buyouts in the sector, so often these days they’re backed by private equity, and there’s even fewer conventional mergers and deals as there were when I was starting Food & Power.
How do you think the way that food systems wonks and activists think and talk about this issue of corporate power and economic consolidation in the food system has changed, if at all, since when you first started F&P?
I think the breadth and the depth of the discourse around consolidation and corporate control has really expanded in the last five years. … I remember, any time there was a story in a major publication that even touched on issues that were relevant to the scope of Food & Power, it felt hugely exciting. … Now [in] virtually every story … about meatpacker issues … around the trade conversations, around allocation of farm subsidies, consolidation is mentioned.
Again, it is not that nobody knew about it, but I think the general attention for corporations and how deregulation has empowered corporations to do so much more than they could do over the past few decades, that I think has just become more popular knowledge, and that’s really great to see.
I’ve seen some interesting alliances brew, also, out of a joint attention to corporate power. Whether it’s labor-farmer alliances or folks from different sectors or different backgrounds talking together about how consolidation affects their community or their way of life – for instance in a rural place where there’s a CAFO [concentrated animal feed operation] or there’s a processing plant of some kind – I think the richness of the conversation has grown a lot.
How did your experiences launching and writing Food & Power shape the journalism you’re doing today?
It’s really foundational to the work I’m doing now. My understanding of regulation and how policy is created and money in politics – all those topics that are really recurrent in my work – are all rooted in this project of trying to understand and explain how the food system is shaped by corporations and corporate power. My scope has broadened, but I think this is an issue that touches so many different elements of this sector and of my beat.
What do you want to see for the next five years of Food & Power?
Well, it’s awesome to think that something I created would exist for so long. I think it’s just so important to keep having this home for work and conversation on this issue. … I mean, pie in the sky, it would be cool to have five reporters or its whole own staff … just churning out great content.
What We're Reading
One of the 30 largest pork corporations in the world, Maxwell Foods, blames pork giant Smithfield for driving Maxwell out of business. ( The Guardian [[link removed]])
Meatpacking workers at JBS’s plant in Greeley, Colorado were only sent home if they tested positive for COVID-19. But whistleblowers claim that JBS charged uninsured employees $100 for a COVID-19 test, pressuring some to go untested and continue working when they felt sick. ( The Counter [[link removed]])
Who might President-elect Joe Biden nominate for secretary of agriculture, and who will chair the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture after Rep. Collin Peterson’s defeat? ( Politico Morning Ag [[link removed]])
About the Open Markets Institute
The Open Markets Institute promotes political, industrial, economic, and environmental resilience. We do so by documenting and clarifying the dangers of extreme consolidation, and by fostering discussions of ways to reestablish America’s political economy on a more stable and fair foundation.
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