Lamb industry faces crisis

A trained sheep dog perches and watches his flock at Skyline Sheep Co. in Mt. Pleasant, which may not have a place to process their lambs if a Greeley, Colorado lamb processing plant is shut down by the plant’s new owners, Brazilian meat packing giant, JBS

Utah lamb growers who are possibly looking at financial ruin if they can’t get their meat to market have been thrown a lifeline, but it’s only temporary for now.

Thanks to a clamor from a handful of ranchers and lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is putting a 30 day stay order on Brazilian meat packing giant JBS shutting down lamb processing at Mountain States Rosen (MSR), a meat processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.

The order will give the DOJ time to look into allegations of antitrust violation from ranchers and western lawmakers, but the actual sale of the Greeley facility has been finalized.

The plant was formerly operated by the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, which was made up of 150 ranch families. The co-op declared bankruptcy in June. Not long after that, the plant was purchased by JBS in a bankruptcy sale.

Up to now, the plant processed more than 300,000 lambs from 15 western states each year, but JBS announced it was shutting down lamb processing, and instead handling only beef. With the only other plant in the area already at total capacity, the lamb growers would be stuck with literally nowhere to go with their meat.

After a group of western lawmakers, led by Utah Senator Mike Lee, caught wind of the issue, they reached out to the antitrust division of the DOJ asking for the transaction to be investigated, fearing it was in violation of antitrust laws.

“Through this acquisition, JBS will eliminate a major domestic competitor in the region and could replace significant quantities of the American-raised lamb with imported products,” Lee wrote in the letter.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon also penned a letter, but to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue voicing his concerns about the problem as well.

“MSR is likely the second-largest lamb facility in the nation, represents one-fifth of America’s lamb market and is a major outlet for Wyoming lamb,” Gordon said. “This transaction marks the end of on-site lamb processing and represents further consolidation of the packing industry and increased foreign influence on American markets — a topic which can be taken up separately and has previously been brought to the attention of Attorney General [William] Barr.”

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, released a statement saying the company was cooperating with the 30-day stay order. Bruett said JBS, “welcomed the DOJ review.”

JBS made an offer to lease the plant back to the MSR co-op for possibly as many as 90 days, but not until they had already let go all 200-plus workers and shut everything down. Just to get the plant back online would have taken more than a month if they could even bring the workers back in, said Carson Jorgensen, the Mt. Pleasant City rancher who first raised the alarm about the JBS sale by penning his own letters to Vice President Mike Pence.

“The offer was a PR stunt by JBS,” Jorgensen said. “They were just trying to save face. The original offer went from 90 days to 75 to 45, but the employees were already let go and plant was shut down. It would have taken 35 days to get back up and running and they knew that.”