You’ve never seen this company’s name on a package of ground beef or steak. That’s because the world’s largest beef producer, JBS, doesn’t sell beef under its own name.
But U.S. consumers buy millions of pounds of JBS beef every year, under brand names like Cedar River Farms, Swift Black Angus, 5 Star Reserve and others, in stores like Costco, Walmart and Kroger, to name a few.
Consumers also unknowingly support JBS when they buy burgers at fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, and at other restaurants supplied by the meat giant.
JBS isupplies Sysco, the world’s largest food distributor, which distributes to hundreds of restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes, schools and hotels.
Sysco, in turn, wholesales JBS meat and other food products to Aramark and Sodexo, food distribution companies that in turn supply institutions like schools, hospitals, government agencies, prisons and more.
JBS is big. In fact it’s the biggest of the world’s Big Meat companies.
JBS also has some big problems.
According to this July 2019 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
“When it comes to scandals, you can take your pick—during its rapid rise to become the world’s biggest meatpacker, JBS and its network of subsidiaries have been linked to allegations of high-level corruption, modern-day 'slave labour' practices, illegal deforestation, animal welfare violations and major hygiene breaches. In 2017 its holding company agreed to pay one of the biggest fines in global corporate history—$3.2bn—after admitting bribing hundreds of politicians. Yet the company’s products remain on supermarket shelves across the world, and its global dominance only looks set to grow further.”
This week, the Bureau reported on yet another JBS scandal, a tale of “skinny cows” and fat lies. A story that highlights the meat giant’s role in burning down the Amazon Rainforest, the “lungs of the planet.”
Given how far JBS’s tentacles reach, you may think it’s impossible to avoid supporting the company—no matter how corrupt, exploitative and destructive its practices.
But you can boycott this Big Meat company. By thinking small. By making it a point to find out where your steak and burgers come from. And by aligning your meat purchase with your values.
Burning the Amazon for ‘cheap’ burgers
This week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovers how JBS fails in both of those categories.
The report also reveals the hypocrisy of the meat giant’s claims about believing that “sustainability involves continuously improving social responsibility, economic viability and environmental stewardship.”
According to Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform, since 1978, more than 289,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Much of that destruction is attributed to industrial agriculture.
By the 2000s, Mongabay reports, more than three-quarters of forest-clearing in the Amazon was for cattle-ranching.
All that destruction of the “lungs of the planet” wipes out critical plant and animal species, and contributes to global warming. According to Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist working on the Amazon for more than half a century:
“This biodiversity is important globally. Every species in this incredibly biodiverse system represents solutions to a set of biological challenges—any one of which has transformative potential and could generate global human benefits.”
Last year, the Washington Post reported on how fires in the Amazon were destroying biodiversity and leading to “a clear spike in carbon monoxide emissions as well as planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, posing a threat to human health and aggravating global warming.”
This week, the Post reported on record-breaking, “blistering” temperatures in places like Baghdad and Phoenix, Arizona. The Post attributed the debilitating excessive heat to a ridge of high pressure anchored over the Middle East, drifting west over the Red Sea toward Egypt. But the report also noted:
"While heat records can occur thanks solely to natural variability, they are disproportionately more likely to occur thanks to warming effects of climate change. Moreover, the human contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has knocked the earth’s relative balance of cold-and-warm anomalies off-kilter, skewing the planet strongly hot."
JBS’s ‘skinny cow’ laundering scheme
So what do the Amazon and global warming have to do with JBS and your burgers and steaks?
The Yale School of Environment reports this:
“Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80 percent of current deforestation rates. Amazon Brazil is home to approximately 200 million head of cattle, and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market.”
Brazil-based JBS has long denied any company involvement in deforestation of the Amazon for cattle ranching, despite accusations to the contrary. According to this week’s Bureau report:
“JBS, like other major beef producers, says that it has a 'zero tolerance' approach to illegal deforestation and has introduced sophisticated monitoring systems for its direct suppliers. At every turn, the company has insisted that it is impossible to monitor its indirect suppliers because there are no publicly available records of livestock moving between farms at different stages of the rearing process.”
That’s hogwash, according to Delara Burkhardt, a German MEP, who told the Bureau:
“Big companies—like JBS—with their big leverage on upstream suppliers could fix this, if they wanted to, or if they were required to do so by domestic or importing countries’ laws.”
Either JBS doesn't want to fix the problem. Or lawmakers don't want to force the company to fix the problem. Or both.
UK Parliament member Angus MacNeil told the Bureau:
“All over Europe there is a cattle tracing system so that people know where calves are born and they can be traced through their lives. In Brazil this is a huge loophole. It is even a more serious issue than welfare and standards, as it is deforestation of the Amazon, the lungs of the earth are at stake.”
How does JBS exploit that loophole? The Bureau found evidence that JBS may have facilitated “cattle laundering,” a process by which livestock (referred to as “skinny cows”) from ‘“dirty” farms linked to deforestation can end up being moved and mixed in with cattle from “clean” farms.
According to the Bureau’s report:
“The Bureau has found evidence of JBS repeatedly promoting use of its own trucks for transporting cattle between indirect suppliers and direct suppliers. JBS executives promote the routes as 'three-legged journeys': picking up 'skinny' cattle at one farm, exchanging them for fattened cows at a second, and ending the journey at an abattoir."
Among the JBS customers linked to JBS’s deforestation practices are: Walmart, Costco, Sysco, Restaurant Brands International (owner of Burger King, Popeye’s and Tim Horton’s) and Yum! (owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and others).
JBS Is everywhere . . . except here
JBS’s role in burning up the Amazon relates largely to the company’s beef production.
But JBS doesn’t just sell beef. It’s also the world’s largest producer of chicken and lamb, and the third-largest producer of pork.
The company’s chicken is sold at retail under the Pilgrim’s (formerly Pilgrim's Pride) brand name at retail chains like Publix, Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Sam’s Club. JBS also supplies chicken to KFC, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A and Burger King.
As already noted, the JBS name doesn’t appear on any of its beef, poultry, lamb or pork. But the company’s meat production practices speak to every one of the 13 reasons we cite for boycotting Big Meat.
For instance, according to an April 2020 Animal Welfare Institute report, JBS operates seven of the 10 worst large livestock slaughter plants in the country. The report said that In total, these seven JBS-owned plants had 132 incidents, including 18 violations classified as “egregious.” The violations included multiple incidents of failing to stun animals before shackling and hanging them to be dismembered, likely causing the animals excruciating pain.
As for human health, many JBS brands are produced with antibiotics, and the company has had to recall beef products for everything from salmonella outbreaks, to plastic contamination, to just this week, failing to follow inspection protocols.
How do consumers steer clear of JBS products, when the company’s name is nowhere to be found? But the products are everywhere?
Here are a few tips:
• Think small. Buy from a trusted organic regenerative farmer or rancher, either one you know personally, or one that sells online. (Here’s a directory to help you find them).
• Don't eat at fast-food chains. Period. Almost all of them source from JBS or one of the other Big Meat companies.
• Ask before you order. If you dine out at other restaurants, ask your server where the burgers and steaks on their menu come from. If they can’t tell you, order something else.
• Align your meat purchasing with your personal values. If you care about the environment, if you care about food chain workers, if animal welfare matters to you, don’t buy meat—any meat, including poultry, pork and lamb—from anywhere other than a farmer or rancher whose practices protect the things you care about.
It will take major policy reforms to achieve a total transformation of our highly centralized, large-scale industrial meat production to an environmentally, socially and economically just organic regenerative system that
But policy reform has to go hand-in-hand with consumer demand. And consumers must demand better.