The Beef Slaughterhouse Industry in the United States: A Closer Look at the Numbers

Beef is big business in the United States In fact, the US produces more beef than any other country in the world. This massive beef supply comes from a relatively small number of large slaughterhouses controlled by just a handful of corporations.

In this in-depth article, we will take a closer look at the beef slaughterhouse industry in America. How many beef slaughterhouses are operating in the US? Who controls this highly consolidated sector? What are the implications of having so few companies dominating beef processing? Let’s find out.

The Big Four Beef Packers

The beef industry, like many other agriculture sectors in America, has become highly concentrated over past decades As of 2021, just four companies controlled around 85% of beef processing in the United States

  • Tyson Foods
  • JBS
  • Cargill
  • National Beef Packing Company

These companies, often referred to as the “Big Four” beef packers, have enormous operations with the capacity to slaughter and process tens of thousands of cattle per day. For example, Tyson Foods alone can process some 132,000 head of cattle per week, or over 6 million per year.

The Big Four utilize high-speed assembly line production in massive beef plants to produce billions of pounds of beef annually. Their dominance of the slaughter and packing industry allows them to benefit from economies of scale and increased profits.

Number of Beef Slaughterhouses

With so few companies controlling the majority of beef processing one might assume there are only a handful of slaughterhouses in the US. But that is not exactly the case.

According to the North American Meat Institute, there are a total of 659 federally inspected beef slaughterhouses across the United States as of 2022. So why do the Big Four control 85% of production if there are so many plants?

The answer comes down to capacity and throughput. The largest facilities operated by Tyson, JBS, Cargill etc. are absolute behemoths, capable of processing thousands of animals daily. Many smaller regional plants have much lower capacities of 100-500 cattle per day.

Additionally, the Big Four operate multiple massive plants each, giving them dominance over cattle slaughter numbers. Tyson Foods alone operates over a dozen sizeable beef processing facilities.

So while there are certainly hundreds of slaughterhouses, the throughput volume at the biggest beef plants eclipses many smaller regional operations.

Geographic Distribution

Beef slaughterhouses are not evenly distributed across the United States. Certain states with strong cattle industry presence dominate in terms of beef processing numbers:

  • Nebraska – Houses more beef plants than any other state at over 100. Many are located near cattle feedlots.

  • Texas – Cargill and JBS have major slaughterhouse hubs here with daily capacity in the thousands.

  • Kansas – Tyson, National Beef, and others operate high volume facilities in this cattle state.

  • Colorado – Home to one of JBS’ largest US beef plants in Greeley capable of 5,400 cattle per day.

Other major beef slaughter states include Iowa, California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The geography is heavily weighted towards cattle producing areas and states with favorable regulations.

Industry Consolidation Issues

The high concentration among just a few large beef packers has raised concerns around industry consolidation. Critics argue the domination of the Big Four makes it difficult for smaller producers to compete. Additional issues include:

  • Consumer prices – Lack of competition may increase beef costs for consumers. Packers can set prices without fear of losing market share.

  • Cattle prices – Similarly, ranchers have limited selling options, which may depress cattle prices.

  • Resilience – Consolidation reduces redundancy. Disease or disaster could cripple supply with so few plants.

  • Rural economies – Small meat lockers and packing houses get pushed out, impacting local jobs.

However, the Big Four argue their size provides efficiencies that benefit consumers with lower prices. But calls for greater antitrust enforcement continue as concentration increases.

The Future of the Beef Industry

Experts expect further consolidation as the meat industry rewards size and scale. New smaller packers struggle to compete. However, there are some bright spots:

  • Local slaughter – Mobile slaughterhouses and small custom plants thrive by serving local markets.

  • Direct-to-consumer – Ranchers bypass packers through models like subscription beef boxes.

  • Exports – Asian demand for US beef continues to grow, enriching both packers and producers.

While the beef slaughterhouse industry remains highly consolidated, innovative operators are finding ways to carve out niche markets. Though the Big Four reign supreme, they do not enjoy an absolute monopoly. Opportunities exist for smaller players through creativity and clever business models.

So while four companies control most beef processing nationwide, there are still hundreds of operating beef slaughterhouses spread across the major cattle states. Understanding the structure of this vital industry provides insight into the modern American beef supply chain.

How 4 companies control the beef industry


How many beef processing plants are in the United States?

There are 5,524 Meat, Beef & Poultry Processing businesses in the US as of 2023, an increase of 0.5% from 2022.

How many cattle slaughterhouses are there in the USA?

According to a 2022 report by the USDA, 900 slaughterhouses are federally inspected and 1,900 plants are not. The non-federally inspected plants that meet their states’ inspection standards can only sell or transport beef intrastate, barring them from being in direct competition with the Big Four.

What state slaughters the most beef?

Number in thousands

Who are the Big 4 meat processors?

Four giant companies – that’s right, FOUR – Tyson, Cargill, and Brazil-based National Beef and JBS, now control 85% of the U.S. beef market. WH Group (Chinese), JBS, Hormel, and Tyson control about 67% of the pork market. Tyson and Pilgrims Pride control about 45% of the chicken market. Who exactly are The Big 4?

How much meat is slaughtered a year?

On-farm slaughter totaled 94.3 million pounds. Beef production totaled 27.2 billion pounds, up slightly from the previous year. Veal production totaled 69.3 million pounds, down 13 percent from last year. Pork production, at 28.3 billion pounds, was 2 percent above the previous year.

How many slaughterhouses are there in the United States?

After decades of consolidation, there are about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, processing billions of pounds of meat for food stores each year. But a relatively small number of them account for the vast majority of production.

How many hogs are slaughtered a year?

Commercial hog slaughter totaled 132 million head, 1 percent higher than 2019 with 99.4 percent of the hogs slaughtered under federal inspection. The average live weight was up 4 pounds from last year, at 289 pounds. Barrows and gilts comprised 97.2 percent of the total federally inspected hog slaughter.

What percentage of cattle are slaughtered?

Steers comprised 49.3 percent of the total federally inspected cattle slaughter, heifers 29.4 percent, dairy cows 9.5 percent, other cows 10.2 percent, and bulls 1.6 percent. Commercial calf slaughter totaled 456,400 head, 22 percent lower than a year ago with 97.9 percent under federal inspection.

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