How Do Huge Food Companies Protect Themselves from Extreme Price Changes?

Skylar Hawthorne

Updated Monday, October 16, 2023 at 11:53 PM CDT

How Do Huge Food Companies Protect Themselves from Extreme Price Changes?

Contracts and Futures: The Key to Stability

In the complex world of food production and supply chains, huge companies like Cargill and McDonald's have developed strategies to protect themselves from extreme price changes. These strategies involve contracts, futures, and careful planning to ensure stability in their operations and profitability. Let's dive into the fascinating mechanisms that allow these companies to navigate the volatile market and safeguard their interests.

Contracts: A Shield Against Market Fluctuations

One of the ways food companies protect themselves from extreme price changes is through contracts with suppliers. For example, McDonald's has a contract with Simplot, a major potato supplier. This contract ensures a steady supply of potatoes at a predetermined price. Farmers who enter into such contracts know in advance the price they will receive for their produce, regardless of market fluctuations.

While this arrangement may seem risky for farmers, it provides them with a level of security. In years with abundant harvests, when market prices are typically lower, the contract price guarantees a fixed amount. Conversely, in years with poor yields, the contract price may be lower than the market price. This system allows for a balance, as Simplot sources potatoes from various regions, mitigating the impact of localized weather conditions on supply.

Beef and Price Negotiations

The dynamics of the beef industry differ slightly from those of the potato industry. Processors like Cargill and JBS hold significant power and profit margins. When the price of cattle rises, processors negotiate with their customers, such as retail grocery stores and wholesale restaurants, to pass on the increased costs. However, companies like McDonald's, due to their large purchasing volume, can negotiate more favorable terms. They may accept a smaller price increase, which the processor accounts for in the price adjustments for other customers.

This strategy allows McDonald's to maintain its massive contracts while still generating substantial profits. However, it is important to note that these price negotiations ultimately impact consumers and farmers. The prices we pay at the grocery store reflect the intricate web of companies squeezing those with limited alternatives, all in pursuit of profit.

Futures Contracts: A Crystal Ball for Pricing

Another crucial tool in the a***nal of large food companies is the use of futures contracts. These contracts enable companies to lock in prices for ingredients well in advance. For instance, McDonald's, as the world's largest buyer of potato futures, secures its potato supply by purchasing contracts that specify the exact price and quantity of potatoes to be delivered on a future date.

By buying these contracts, sometimes years ahead of time, McDonald's can accurately forecast and control its potato costs. This means that the company buys relatively little on demand, reducing its exposure to sudden price fluctuations. This practice extends beyond potatoes; even commodities like salt are managed through futures contracts, ensuring stability in pricing and supply.

The Cost Breakdown

It's essential to understand that the raw material cost, such as potatoes for fries or beef for hamburgers, is just one component of the overall cost of a food item. Transportation, processing, marketing, store overhead, and profits all contribute to the final price. Therefore, even significant fluctuations in raw material prices have a relatively minor impact on the overall cost of the product.

Moreover, companies like McDonald's operate on a cost-plus production model. This means they pay their processors and production companies a set rate for their services on top of the raw material costs. For example, McDonald's may pay $10 per 1,000 hamburger patties on top of the cost of the beef used to produce them. This additional layer of stability helps mitigate the effects of commodity price fluctuations.

Huge food companies like Cargill and McDonald's protect themselves from extreme price changes through a combination of contracts, futures, and strategic negotiations. These mechanisms provide stability and predictability in the face of market volatility. However, it is crucial to recognize that these strategies impact both consumers and farmers, as the costs are ultimately passed down the supply chain. Understanding these dynamics sheds light on the intricate workings of the food industry and the factors influencing the prices we pay at the grocery store.

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