In 2019, a series of class-action lawsuits were filed against JBS, National Beef Packing, Tyson, and Cargill, commonly known as “The Big Four” packers on behalf of direct purchasers, producers, and indirect purchasers as separate classes seeking class certification. These suits allege that The Big Four violated the Sherman Act, the main federal law protecting free market competition and prohibiting restraint on interstate commerce. In addition, these suits alleged violations of 25 different states’ antitrust laws and 21 states’ consumer protection laws totaling 48 claims in a single suit. The suits alleged that The Big Four have a tight oligarchy for both slaughter capacity and processed beef sales and that The Big Four conspired to artificially deflate the beef supply and drive up the cost of boxed beef. The suits also name a market forecasting service, Agri Stats, as a defendant. In 2021, JBS settled with the direct purchaser class only, for $52.5M, agreeing to provide “extensive cooperation” to plaintiffs in proving their claims against the other defendants.
In June and July of 2022, Sysco Corporation, along with other grocers and food distributors, filed similar lawsuits against The Big Four, alleging violations of the Sherman Act and conspiracy to artificially deflate cattle market prices while simultaneously causing boxed beef prices to soar. Sysco’s complaints quote a former employee witness who purported to have first-hand knowledge of the alleged conspiracies.
A search of public access court records shows 11 associated cases to Sysco’s suit against The Big Four. Two of the cases have already consolidated multiple suits with similar claims. As the U.S. Department of Justice continues its investigation of these allegations quietly, the litigation is heating up. The Defendants publicly and vigorously deny the allegations, and all testified before Congress in April of 2022, unequivocally denying any conspiracy as alleged between them. There’s a lot of smoke around this issue, and time will tell if it’s a smoke screen or an inferno. For now, the larger agriculture community is following closely as the poultry and swine industries wait in the wings.
Friedel, Jennifer. “Sysco Becomes Latest Beef Packer Antitrust Claimant“. Southern Ag Today 2(31.5). July 29, 2022. Permalink