Hawaii’s beef market is backward. Nearly all the beef eaten here — 95 percent — arrives packaged on container ships from the U.S. mainland. At the same time, Hawaii cattle ranchers ship 40,000 live cattle each year to California, Kansas and other states, while just 4,000 are slaughtered for meat sales in Hawaii.
The economics made sense for decades. Huge slaughterhouses elsewhere could process beef more efficiently than smaller ones in Hawaii, and it’s cheaper to send cattle to the mainland to be fattened than to bring in corn or other grains to feed calves after they’re weaned.
Now, national interest in locally grown food and grass-fed beef has caught on in Hawaii — offering ranchers plenty of reason to escape this paradox. But the opportunity comes as crushing drought has made it difficult to keep enough cattle here to capitalize on the demand.
Rancher and veterinarian Dr. Tim Richards has been trying for six years to raise more cattle on his family’s century-old ranch. He holds back some calves he previously would have sent to Oregon, Texas or elsewhere for final feeding, or “finishing.” But eight years of below-normal rainfall have left little grass for the cattle to eat.
“You put them out, and then it doesn’t rain and then instead of growing, they just sort of stand around,”
You might have missed this while you were busy taking the kids to school and preparing for the holidays, but last fall, two U.S. food labeling programs suffered serious legal setbacks that threaten to confuse consumers and thwart the intentions of the “dolphin-safe” tuna and “country-of-origin” labels.
The details are complicated, but in September and November, two dispute panels for the World Trade Organization in Switzerland sided in part with Mexico and Canada on complaints against the voluntary dolphin-safe label and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL). Mexico argued that U.S. dolphin-safe standards are misleading and discriminate against the controversial fishing techniques that Mexico employs to catch tuna. Canada argued that the COOL program discriminates against imported cattle and hogs.
Reactions to the WTO rulings have ranged from tranquil to concerned to downright outraged. Major U.S. tuna producers say they won’t change their dolphin-safe sourcing standards even if they have to change their labels. Pork and beef producers worry that Mexico and Canada might apply tariffs to U.S. meat imports if the U.S. government doesn’t comply with the WTO rulings on COOL, a regulation the meat industry has had mixed feelings about since its implementation in early 2009.
And some nonprofit groups are frustrated that the United States finds itself in this position at all. They’ve long predicted that America’s binding membership in the WTO could lead to this: sacrificing important U.S. environmental and public-safety laws in the name of free international trade.
“There has been widespread concern,” wrote the nonpartisan advocacy group Public Citizen after the dolphin-safe ruling in September, that the WTO could “second guess the U.S. Congress, courts or public by elevating the goal of maximizing trade flows over consumer and environmental protection.”
The founder, who began by slaughtering one or two head a day in 1953, raises calves far in the countryside. Six of his children are in JBS’s management. And ranchers such as Edson Crochiquia, who is 69 but rounds up cattle on horseback near here, spare no detail to provide the company with healthy, 1,000-pound animals.
Even a decade ago, JBS was still mainly focused on selling in Brazil. But by acquiring American giants such as Swift and Pilgrim’s Pride, JBS grew from a $1 billion private company into a $40 billion behemoth that slaughters 90,000 head of cattle a day, employs 125,000 workers and exports to 150 countries.
JBS is now the world’s biggest provider of meat, its footprint felt by feedlots, packing plants and chicken processors from Argentina to Italy to the American Midwest.
In Brazil, it is not uncommon to find banks, steel mills and other companies that evolved from family businesses into global giants. But JBS stands out, using an alliance with Brazil’s development bank and an aggressive acquisition strategy to become a vital pillar of the country’s efforts to project its economic power abroad.
To Wesley Batista, JBS’s 40-year-old chief executive and the founder’s fourth child, the company is still run “a simple way,” using a management model without “a lot of layers, not a lot of fancy things, not a lot of time spent on PowerPoint presentations.”