IBP, Boxed Beef & a New "Big Four"
It's a paradox that during the same time period that the large urban livestock markets of Omaha and Chicago were at their peaks, the seeds of their destruction were being sown. In the process, the old "Big Four" meat companies were replaced or bought out by a new set of Big Four meat companies who sold to big supermarket chains and corporate fast food outlets.
For cattlemen across the country, these changes in the structure of the beef industry meant that many small operators were squeezed out of business.
When the 50s began, Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Wilson collectively known as the "Big Four" were the traditional powerhouses in the meat industry. They controlled 40 percent of the fresh beef trade. But that was down from 1920 when government antitrust regulators forced the Big Four to give up some of their vertically integrated business enterprises. The Big Four were monopolizing the market and so had to give up control of stockyards, transportation systems and retail marketing. By the 50s, the Big Four still operated huge packinghouses near the big urban livestock markets, but there were thousands of other packinghouses around the country.
Cudahy may have begun the market trend that eventually led to their demise when they recognized there were economies to be had if they moved away from the urban stockyards closer to the source of their raw materials. They realized it was cheaper to locate a packinghouse close to the new large feedlots, buy cattle directly and ship the meat in quarters of beef rather than paying for shipping the live animals to an urban market. Cudahy was the first packer to move away from Chicago.
But Cudahy didn't take the logic far enough. IBP did.
In 1960, Iowa Beef Packers (as it was then known) was founded by Currier Holman and A. D. Anderson with $300,000 in financing from the Small Business Administration, rather than a traditional bank. They built a completely new plant in Dennison, Iowa, close to big feedlots and cheap energy sources. The sprawling plant was all on one floor so that the beef carcasses could be moved around on conveyers. Immediately after the animal was killed, the beef was refrigerated and the rest of the process was done in the cold. That reduced the shrinkage of the meat from dehydration.
But the biggest innovation that IBP came up with was the idea for "boxed beef," as explained here by IBP executive Dale Tinstman:
"It was a natural progression from the efficiencies of shipping carcasses to shipping boxed beef. There is a lot of wasted space in a modern truck or rail car filled with chilled sides of beef. A side of beef has an awkward shape it can't be neatly packed, and a side has a lot of bone and trim that will never go into the meat case. It was logical to move to boxed beef."
Beyond the savings in shipping costs, boxed beef also took advantage of the new demands from consumers and supermarkets for increased convenience. After 1950, the proportion of women in the labor force grew steadily. Weekly food preparation consumed 28 hours in 1943, but dropped to 18 hours in 1968. Most homes now had refrigerators with freezers for the first time. So, consumers were interested in quickly selecting a piece of meat, they were more willing to consider frozen beef and they didn't care who cut it for them. Supermarket chains realized that it was cheaper to let the packinghouses hire the skilled meat cutters and to stock pre-packaged cuts of meat in plastic, see-through wrappers, another innovation of the 60s.
Quickly, IBP built a series of larger and larger packinghouses across rural America. They figured out ways of turning what had been waste products into saleable raw materials a practice that came into question during the mad cow disease scare of the early 21st century. By the turn of the century, they had shortened their name to the initials and become the largest processor of beef, hogs and chickens.
IBP set the stage for a massive shakeup of the processing industry. Several new firms started up in rural states where land was cheap and the labor force was younger and usually not organized into unions. The feedlots were close and the Interstate highway system made quick transportation to distant markets possible.
The old Big Four of Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Wilson were hampered by the old antitrust regulations. They got those rules amended around 1980, but by then they had lost too much momentum. Swift is the only company to still command a major market share. Today, the new Big Four include
- Tyson Foods is ranked number one after buying IBP in 2002. It is the second largest publicly-traded food company in the U.S.
- Excel Corporation is number two and is a subsidiary of the huge grain company Cargill.
- Swift & Company became number three after it bought controlling interest in ConAgra Meats in 2002. Swift was privately held until a Brazilian company, JBS S.A., bought it in 2007.
- National Beef Packing Company is a producer-owned marketing cooperative and used to be called Farmland National Beef.
Over the years, even the new Big Four have run into problems like labor strife and environmental impact fines. But they have increased their dominance on the meat market, in part by working closely with their feedlot producers.
Tom Hoffman admits that he helped the decline of the Omaha Stockyards. Tom left Omaha to work for IBP buying cattle directly from the farmers for an IBP plant in central Nebraska. "My activities, along with hundreds of other fellows," he says, "signaled the beginning of the end for the Omaha Stockyards. Which, in all honesty, I regret. I really do. Just a way of life vanished. And that's sad."
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.