Inside The World's Largest Food Company You've Probably Never Heard Of

Inside The World's Largest Food Company You've Probably Never Heard Of

12:46pm Jul 18, 2015
Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.
Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
  • Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.

    Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.

    Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

  • Cattle stand in a holding pen just outside the JBS slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo. Nozzles spray a fine mist over the animals to cool them and keep dust down.

    Cattle stand in a holding pen just outside the JBS slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo. Nozzles spray a fine mist over the animals to cool them and keep dust down.

    Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

  • The Kuner Feedlot in Kersey, Colo., is part of JBS's Five Rivers cattle feeding operation.

    The Kuner Feedlot in Kersey, Colo., is part of JBS's Five Rivers cattle feeding operation.

    Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

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."

JBS is a powerhouse in meat. The Brazilian multinational is the largest global producer of beef, chicken and lamb, and no. 3 in pork. Altogether, it's one of the biggest food companies in the world. Judging by annual sales figures, it's second only to Nestle.

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 is now joining the chorus of large food makers 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."

JBS owns numerous plants cross the Midwest, South and West of the U.S., as well as worldwide. The JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., is an imposing building. Conveyor belts snake through the concrete structure. But it's not an assembly line. Workers in blood-spattered smocks disassemble cattle, breaking down whole animals into cuts of meat.

Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.

Beef carcasses hang in the sales cooler at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC

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, tongues hanging out.

During a guided tour for journalists, the plant's manager, Bill Danley, points to a line of men carving the animal's head. "These guys here, what they're doing is, they're taking the cheek meat off," Danley says. "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 sirloin at steakhouses, ground hamburger at local grocery stores and leather for car seats.

JBS spokesman Bruett says for a long time, beef has been a commodity, shipped out from meatpacking plants in boxes and rebranded at grocery stores and restaurants. Bruett says when your immediate customers are other businesses, there's little value in telling your story.

"I don't think that that's necessarily unique to JBS. I think that's livestock and poultry in general," Bruett says.

The Kuner Feedlot in Kersey, Colo., is part of JBS's Five Rivers cattle feeding operation.

The Kuner Feedlot in Kersey, Colo., is part of JBS's Five Rivers cattle feeding operation.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC

Katie Abrams studies consumer perceptions of agriculture at Colorado State University. She says the meat industry's reluctance to be more transparent has made meat processing appear secretive, scary and mysterious to most meat eaters. And attempts to fix that reputation will be costly.

"Because the industry has been slow to opening the barn doors, so to speak, they have a bit of catching up to do," Abrams says.

"They have to be continual," she says. "It's not just going to be releasing a press release or a blog post or a one-time, short-term campaign."

As JBS buys up companies that make packaged food and shelf-stable goods, it's had no choice but to start engaging with consumers – and media. But the company isn't yet comfortable giving complete access to its business operations. When asked 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 officials since first entering the U.S. market in 2007. Last year, the company logged four worker deaths in North America, including one at its Greeley plant. It's also gotten scrutiny from antitrust officials, who worry that consolidation in the meatpacking industry is leaving ranchers with few options to sell.

JBS could soon take a few more timid steps into the spotlight. It's currently attempting to buy a huge competitor in pork processing. And while JBS is privately-held in the U.S. now, it's exploring the possibility of going public, which would layer on even more scrutiny.


Luke Runyon reports for Harvest Public Media and is based at KUNC in Greeley, Colo. A version of this story originally appeared there.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Food companies are starting to pay close attention to the groundswell of support for food transparency. Call it the know-where-your-food-comes-from movement. Large multinational corporations that run animal slaughter facilities are opening up a bit. But as Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports, meat packers are in a tough spot trying to tell consumers about their business without dwelling on the gory details.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Conveyor belts snake through the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo. But it's not an assembly line. Workers in blood-spattered smocks disassemble cattle, breaking down whole animals into cuts of meat. Bill Danley is the plant's manager.

BILL DANLEY: We're going to walk through here. I'm going to shut the chain off real quick.

RUNYON: You can smell the manure. We're just about to head into the harvest floor where they actually kill the animals before they send them into the rest of the processing plant. Danley weaves through a maze of hanging carcasses, placing his hand on a swinging steer to halt the line. There are whole Holsteins, the black and white cattle, moving down a conveyor belt, hung up by their legs. Their heads are laying on the conveyor belt. Their tongues are sticking out.

DANLEY: These guys here, what they're doing is - they're taking the cheek meat off. There's head meat on top of that. A lot of your taco filler is made out of cheek meat and head meat.

RUNYON: But taco meat is just the beginning. This one steer is destined to be sirloin at steak houses, ground hamburger at grocery stores, and leather for car seats. The company's plants churn out enough beef, chicken, lamb and pork to make JBS the largest meatpacking company in the world. And like many of the world's largest meatpackers, JBS has stayed largely out of the spotlight while staying on your dinner table.

BILL RUPP: You know, part of you says, I need to learn how to bring the packing house into the consumer's living room.

RUNYON: Bill Rupp heads the company's beef division.

RUPP: And then at the same time, you think of all the pitfalls and trying to explain to consumers how we harvest their meat.

RUNYON: Rupp says while the know-your-food movement has gained momentum, when it comes to me most consumers don't actually want to know all the grisly parts, and that's the internal struggle many large industrial-scale food companies face.

CAMERON BRUETT: The consumer 20, 30 years ago wasn't all that interested where that beef on that styrofoam - white styrofoam with the plastic wrap - where that meat came from.

RUNYON: JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett says for a long time, beef has been a commodity, shipped out from meatpacking plants and boxes and rebranded at grocery stores and restaurants. Bruett says when your immediate customers are other businesses, there's little value in telling your story.

BRUETT: I don't even necessarily think that's unique to JBS. I think that is livestock and poultry in general.

KATIE ABRAMS: Because the industry has been slow to opening the barn doors, so to speak, they have a bit of catching up to do.

RUNYON: Katie Abrams studies consumer perceptions of agriculture at Colorado State University. She says the meat industry's reluctance to be more transparent has made meat processing appear secretive, scary and mysterious to most meat eaters. And attempts to fix that reputation will be costly.

ABRAMS: They have to be continual. It's not just going to be releasing a press release or a blog post or you know, a one-time short-term campaign.

RUNYON: JBS could soon take a few more timid steps into the spotlight. It's currently attempting to buy a huge competitor in pork processing. And while JBS has been privately held in the U.S. now, it's exploring the possibility of going public which would layer on even more scrutiny. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.

MCEVERS: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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