The Meat Racket
The Secret Takeover of
America's Food Business

Christopher Leonard
(Simon & Schuster)
There's nothing like an expose on American agribusiness and factory food production to put you off your feed. Christopher Leonard's investigation into the chicken industry, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, is no exception. It doesn't devote a huge amount of ink to the actual yucky processes required to produce the meat itself --- although there are more than enough details to cause considerable queasiness.

Instead, Leonard focuses on the economic behemoth that brings meat to America, or, as he puts it, "the hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation's meat supply."

His book takes aim at Tyson Foods, now the largest meat-producing company in the world and the leading member of an "oligarchy" of companies whose hold on the American meat industry is absolute and unprecedented.

Leonard spent a decade as a national agribusiness reporter for The Associated Press and before that worked for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, covering business news in Tyson's home territory. That gave him an in to the company which doesn't take to reporters with open arms. Its managers are evasive and its farmers are fearful of running afoul of the company. But Leonard dug in and earned the trust of enough sources (including Don Tyson, the late CEO of Tyson Foods) to give him a portrait of a monolith answerable to no one.

At the center of the book, of course, is the Tyson family. It all began with the indomitable John, who came of age at the start of the Depression, had nothing . . . but created what is now Tyson Foods. "He was a man who never forgot the dark cloud of poverty from which he ran until the day he died," Leonard writes.

That was in 1967 when John's equally driven son, Don, took over and drove the company's rise to a global superpower of meat, an enterprise that economists calculate sucks up 5 percent of every grocery bill.

There's a note of admiration in Leonard's description of Don Tyson, as he talks about his drive and determination. Here was a man who spent 14 years to get chicken on the menu at McDonald's. But Leonard has no admiration whatever for the system of chicken production that Tyson built, which "keeps farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy."

In the 1960s, Tyson decided that running chicken farms was too risky and decided instead to leave that part of the business to contract farmers. As the company expanded, it would take over all the businesses that used to make up a small-town economy.

Tyson Foods owns the breeding company that determines which birds are raised, the hatcheries where chicks are born, and the chickens that it delivers to contract farmers who raise them. It owns the feed mills that fatten the birds up, the slaughterhouses where the birds are processed, and the trucking lines that deliver the meat.

What the company ultimately achieved is a level of control over American meat production so complete that, as Leonard puts it, "before there is a chicken or an egg, there is Tyson." Tyson's strategy for omnipotence begins by controlling cost and production, Tyson can essentially dictate price. That is to say, in a country where the free market is supposedly king, Tyson plays by its own rules.

And some of those rules are insidious and demeaning. Take, for instance, the weekly "tournament system" that Don Tyson devised, which pays farmers via a contest in which they compete against one another to get paid based on their relative performance, measured by things like pounds of chicken delivered per week. The tournament is a zero-sum game in which those at the top earn at the expense of those at the bottom, who earn so little that they will be driven into bankruptcy if their rankings don't improve. This "helps push the financial risks of farming from Tyson to its farmers," Leonard writes. Why not sell to someone other than Tyson? Well, there isn't anyone.

Success in chicken farming, Leonard asserts, depends on the health of the chicks, the food they are fed and the technology of the farms. Tyson delivers the chicks and the feed. Leonard reports rumors that farmers who complain are given sick chicks or poisoned food, so they will go bankrupt. As for the farms, newer ones can produce more chicken at a lower cost than older ones; Leonard tells of families who have sunk their savings into farms only to find themselves outgunned in the tournament by a newcomer, just when they thought they were getting clear of their debt.

This astonishing transformation of the rural economy and the subsequent impoverishment of those who are tied to it has largely escaped scrutiny until now because it has taken place in the boonies and the backwoods, the off-the-radar hamlets of states such as Arkansas.

Take a case in point: Waldron, Ark., where Jerry and Kanita Yandell had farmed chicken for two decades when Jerry was persuaded to sign a contract with Tyson. Every eight weeks the company delivered tens of thousands of chicks to the Yandell farm; its vans returned later to collect grown chickens for slaughter. In 2003, something went wrong. The Yandells' birds began dying overnight. Kanita entered the chicken houses to find the birds literally rotting, "their bodies like soft, purple balloons . . . legs sloughing off the body when she tried to pick them up."

She called the Tyson plant for months asking for help with this strange disease but never received it, according to Leonard. The birds kept dying, one delivery after another, and in the end the Yandells lost their paychecks, their farm and their assets. When The crew from Tyson finally arrived to gather the last flocks they were dressed in blue hazmat suits, as if fending off a plague.

Soon enough, another crop of farmers willing to sign new contracts appeared in Waldron: Laotian refugees. Boonau Phouthavong bought a failed chicken farm and lived in impoverished conditions, working seven days a week until he in turn was bankrupted. He couldn't compete with other farmers who were able to afford more advanced equipment and produce fatter birds.

Rural Americans have a word for what has happened to the economy of towns like Waldron. . . . They have been chickenized.

After pioneering their model in the poultry business, Leonard says, Tyson set out to "chickenize" first the hog and then the cattle business. It has faced fierce resistance in the latter, but its practices still help set the standard for the entire industry.

Tyson was one of the first companies to use a growth hormone called Zilmax, which causes cattle to put on weight with astounding results. "The animals blow up like muscled balloons," adding that the hormone also makes the meat leaner and cheaper to produce --- in other words, "more like chicken." Tyson stopped using Zilmax last year after critics raised concerns that cows were becoming paralyzed.

The technological advances, the cost savings and the efficiencies that Big Meat has brought about can't be overlooked.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, this industrial meat machine provided tremendous benefit to American consumers. By industrializing animal production, Tyson's system rewrote the stubborn biological equations that once constrained the meat industry. Between 1955 and 1982, the amount of time it took to raise a full-grown chicken fell from 73 days to 52 days. And the chickens got bigger during that time, expanding from an average 3.1 pounds to 4 pounds. Perhaps most impressively of all, it took less and less chicken feed each year to accomplish this feat.

And there are all those scrumptious choices to tempt us at the supermarket: the rotisserie chicken slowly turning in its oven, the Lady Aster-brand chicken cordon bleu and the chicken pot pie, frozen cheese omelets, the Grilled & Ready Honey BBQ Seasoned Chicken Strips, Bonici pepperoni and Wright bacon. Yup, you guessed it: all from Tyson Foods.

But it appears that the miracles are slowing down.

Ironically, just as consumers traded away control over the way meat is produced, the meteoric production gains of industrialized animal production started to fade away. After realizing the huge boost of savings that came from raising animals in factories, the growth curve started to flatten in the 1990s. It seems that the genetics of the poor chicken had been pushed about as far as they can go.

Today, no matter what Tyson or its competitors do, they seem to have run up against a wall of just how cheaply you can raise a bird on a given amount of food. The same thing is happening with the hog and the cow, who appear to be getting as fat as the law of physics will allow on their given rations of feed.

Meat prices have been rising inexorably in recent years. And who is going to say otherwise? Megafood is omnipotent and unassailable. Nothing is going to help the farmers who work every day, live in near poverty, and gamble their savings on a chance to move up the American class ladder. It's the farmers themselves, prodded by Tyson's competitive fee scheme, who pay for upgrades to chicken houses --- well, farmers, along with taxpayers.

Check out this final indignity: The U.S. Farm Service Administration backs loans to poultry farmers and pays banks back when they default. In other words, we're all subsidizing a churning rotation of bankruptcies that keeps companies like Tyson supplied with the newest infrastructure and a desperate labor force.

Leonard also details how the Obama administration's initial promise to take on the meat industry was confronted by an indomitable onslaught of lobbying and ended in pretty much business as usual.

The book is a scary portrait of capitalism run amok.

--- Warren Sharpe
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