Food companies the world over are paying close attention to the groundswell of support for food transparency, the “know where your food comes from” movement.
JBS, the largest meat producer in the world, is beginning to take notice as well.
But executives with JBS USA, the North American arm of its Brazilian parent company, at the same time acknowledge that the very nature of their business is grisly, gory and sometimes unpalatable.
“Part of you says, ‘I need to learn how to bring the packing house into the consumer’s living room,’” says Bill Rupp, president of the company’s beef division. “Then at the same time you think of all the pitfalls of trying to explain to consumers how we harvest their meat.”
Rupp made his comments during a recent media tour that included sit-down interviews with the company’s top leadership, a tour of its Greeley, Colorado, beef plant and a visit to a rural Weld County cattle feeding operation, run by a JBS subsidiary.
The company is a powerhouse in meat. The Brazilian multinational is the largest global producer of beef, chicken and lamb, and they're number three in pork. All together, it’s one of the biggest food companies in the world. Judging by annual sales figures, it’s second only to Nestle.
Think for a second about the world’s largest food companies. Names like General Mills, Kraft and Tyson probably come easily. Despite numbering among the world’s food giants, JBS has stayed largely out of the spotlight while staying on your dinner table. But even JBS, which so often eschews media scrutiny, is now joining the chorus of large foodmakers caving to consumer demand for more information about how food goes from field to plate.
“I think in today’s society the consumer wants to know more and more where their food comes from. And food companies are slowly adopting toward that,” says Cameron Bruett, JBS USA spokesman. “But I think we need to do a better job.”
The Colorado plant is one of many the company owns worldwide. Its Midwest footprint includes facilities in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. Pilgrim’s Pride, the JBS poultry operation, sprawls the southeast, with plants in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky. JBS Five Rivers feeds and fattens cattle throughout the Western U.S. with feedlots in Texas, Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma.
“One of the things about JBS that I’m sure you’ve noticed is that we’ve had a very aggressive growth strategy. We like to say that growth is in our DNA,” Bruett says.
The JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley is an imposing building. Its keys went to JBS in 2007 with the acquisition of Swift and Company. Conveyor belts snake through the concrete structure, originally built in the 1950s. It’s not an assembly line though. The workers at the plant disassemble cattle, breaking down whole animals into cuts of meat.
The plant’s harvest floor, where the cattle are first stunned and killed with a bolt to the head, smells of manure, blood and flesh. Holsteins, a cattle breed with black and white spots, are hung up by their hind legs, moving down a conveyor belt in various states of disassembly. Their heads lie on the conveyor belt, glassy-eyed with tongues hanging out.
Workers in blood-spattered smocks wield knives and saws, slicing off tongues and tails, and placing them in plastic cryovac bags. More than 30 percent of what’s produced at this plant will be exported to countries like China, Japan, Chile, Argentina and Mexico for use in food products, pharmaceuticals, even leather car seats. The plant’s manager, Bill Danley, guided a group of journalists through a maze of hanging carcasses, placing his hand on a swinging steer to halt the line.
“These guys here, what they’re doing is they’re taking the cheek meat off,” Danley says, pointing to a line of men using knives to carve the animal’s head. “There’s head meat on top of that. A lot of your taco filler is made out of cheek meat and head meat.”
Taco meat is just the beginning. This one cow is destined to be filet mignon in fancy restaurants, sirloin at steakhouses, and ground hamburger at your local grocery store.
For a long time, beef has been a commodity, shipped out from plants like this and rebranded at retailers. That’s changing at JBS, as the company responds to market trends by acquiring companies that make packaged food and shelf-stable goods, leaving the company with no choice but to engage with consumers.
JBS has become accustomed to the siloed-off feeling that comes with being an anonymous commodity producer. When your immediate customers are other businesses, there’s little value in telling your story to media, and therefore consumers, says company spokesman Bruett.
“I don’t think that that’s necessarily unique to JBS. I think that’s livestock and poultry in general,” Bruett says. “There hasn’t been a lot of what I could call institutional marketing, promoting a JBS brand.”
Still, while it’s attempting to open up, the company isn’t yet comfortable giving complete access to its business operations. When prompted by a Denver Post photographer why photos were not allowed to be taken within the company’s harvest floor, JBS’s Bill Rupp said it’s about control.
“I think it’s part of the evolution we’re going through on transparency,” Rupp says. “We’ve seen it so many times where there’s been a photo allowed and then they zero right in on the piece of meat on the floor and then it becomes ‘Deplorable Conditions At Local Packing House.’”
JBS has raised the ire of workplace safety and antitrust officials since first entering the U.S. market in 2007. In 2014, the company logged four worker deaths in North America, including one at its Greeley plant. Ralph Horner, 54, was killed when his hair was pulled into a conveyor belt that federal inspectors said was not properly guarded. That case is currently in litigation. Two workers, Bobby Beall, 50, and Pablo Lopez Romero, 55, died while on the job at separate Pilgrim’s Pride plants in Texas. Beall was electrocuted. Romero was crushed by ice. Christopher Harper of Alberta, Canada died after receiving severe burns from a blocked steam pipe at the company’s beef plant there.
In 2009, JBS unsuccessfully attempted to buy the country’s fourth-largest beef company, Kansas City-based National Beef Packing. Antitrust officials filed a lawsuit to block the sale. In 2014, JBS got into a bidding war with poultry rival Tyson for control of Hillshire Brands. JBS ended up losing that fight.
“One thing that I often hear from producers and especially ranchers is that concentration in the meatpacking industry is pinching them,” says Michael Carolan, a Colorado State University sociologist who studies food systems. “Or that the market has gotten so concentrated that they’re not able to get a fair price for their animals. And the literature, and even public hearings by the USDA back up these claims.”
The nation’s system of delivering meat to consumers is shaped like an hourglass, Carolan says, wide at both ends.
“On one side in the United States you have tens of thousands of producers and literally millions of consumers at the other ends, but at the middle you see this market concentration,” Carolan says.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that kind of concentration is troublesome, leaving ranchers with few options to sell. Andre Nogueira, the company’s CEO, says JBS still hasn’t sated its appetite for buying up other meatpackers.
“When are we going to stop? I’m not sure if we’re going to stop. We love the growth,” Nogueira says. “Regulation is part of the game and we respect that. So there’s a limit for growth, for sure. In one business, in one market there’s a limit for growth. But there’s a lot of opportunities globally that we will continue to explore.”
JBS could soon take a few more timid steps into the spotlight. It is publicly traded in Brazil, but in North America it’s still privately-held. JBS USA is currently exploring the possibility of going public, according to the company’s spokesman, which would add an infusion of cash, and layer on more scrutiny.