Book Review: Cutting Out The Meat Racket

It just takes a walk down your supermarket’s meat aisle to appreciate the corporate might of Tyson Foods. (They’re certainly a big part of the foodopoly Wenonah Hauter wrote about last year.) What you may not know is how the chicken giant helped to create the modern American – increasingly, global – industrial meat production and distribution system. This is a yarn about corporate and management philosophy more than a critique of the meat system arising from animal welfare or food safety concerns – but it’s shocking, engaging stuff.

In Christopher Leonard’s new book, The Meat Racket, Tyson’s corporate strategy is explained in chilling detail. The integration of all aspects of the meat-producing business is a model forged by Tyson’s chicken, but has since been emulated in the pork and beef industries by Smithfield and other meat-producing giants. All of this consolidation means that fewer than three companies control half of the chicken market. Foodopoly, indeed.

Borne out of the Great Depression and originally controlled by the Tyson family, Tyson Foods was a meat industry pioneer operating under the concept of “vertical integration”. When a single corporation establishes total control and ownership over meat production, from animal genetics to breeding, feed, slaughter, processing and distribution, they achieve vertical integration. And it translates to big profits for the few multinational companies, like Tyson, that can afford to practice it – in this case, at the expense of family farmers, public health, the environment, rural communities and animal welfare.

This is a yarn about corporate and management philosophy more than a critique of the meat system arising from animal welfare or food safety concerns – but it’s shocking, engaging stuff.

Leonard cites the 1965 book, Individual Freedom and the Economic Organization of Agriculture, whose author, Harold Breimyer, asks: “If farms become nothing more than food factories, would farmers become modern-era serfs? If the food industry consolidated, would rural economies become servants to big corporations that were funded by Wall Street capital? Would Americans have any say over how their food was produced?”

These questions sum up why we should continue to be concerned with what Leonard calls the American “meat oligarchy”. Today’s meat farmers have become akin to modern-era serfs; rural economies are servants (even, perhaps, hostages) to big corporations and consumers everywhere have little say over how their food is produced. 

Under Tyson’s business model, the riskier, dirtier aspects of meat production – the actual raising of the animals – are passed on to family farmers, who play a game of economic Russian roulette each growing cycle, becoming, as Leonard describes, “high tech sharecroppers.”  In the chicken industry, Tyson delivers chicks and feed to the farmers, who are expected to grow the animals according to a set schedule. Local farmers are pitted against one another in a “tournament” system, in which the farmers are ranked based on the weights of their animals. If a farmer ends up at the bottom of the list, he or she could stand to lose thousands of dollars, making industrial chicken farming a seemingly never-ending game of catch up dependent on the latest chicken-house technologies. Farmers are thus encouraged to take out expensive loans to buy the latest climate control technology, or fans, or whatever will keep the most chickens alive in the confined spaces of chicken houses.

Tyson’s influence on meat hasn’t stopped with chickens. Vertical integration has also taken over the pork and beef industries. Leonard describes the industrialization of hog farming in his profile of one Iowa pig farmer:

The old rules of farming no longer apply. What determines the fate of industrial hog farmers is the raw power of companies like Tyson Foods. Open markets have been replaced by contracts. Independence has been replaced by close relationships with transnational corporations.

Why is this bad? As Leonard explains, the more contract farmers there are, the harder it is for farmers to sell independently; the open, cash market for pigs has begun to evaporate. Most hogs in the US are grown under contract for large, vertically integrated companies. The open, free market for pigs essentially no longer exists, and hog farmers make less than half of each dollar a consumer spends on pork compared with what they made in 1980. But these pay cuts to farmers aren’t reflected in what consumers pay for meat products: as Leonard writes, “[c]onsumers pay more, farmers pay less, and corporations in the middle grab a windfall.” Similar “chickenization” has also happened in the beef industry, where a handful of meatpackers control the market through contract farming.

We can’t let the US government off the hook; their subsidies, policies and sometime regulatory negligence haven’t exactly hurt the meat industry, but it must be said that Big Meat has also been helped by American consumers. As Leonard points out, “Americans have decided that meat must be cheap and plentiful. It must be consistent in its attributes and predictable in its taste.” The only way to make this happen is through factory farming. “This is what delivers the cheap pork chop, the Zilmax [a growth hormone]-infused hamburger patty, and the ever-ready supply of Chicken McNuggets.” All of these cultural, political and economic factors helped pave the way for factory farming.

While The Meat Racket is about the history and economics of our current meat system, Leonard only touches upon other pressing problems created by the industrial meat system – such as antibiotic resistance, food poisoning and contamination, animal cruelty, waste management and pollution and the negative health impacts of eating processed and factory-farmed meats. Regardless, as the industrial meat industry becomes more powerful, Leonard’s book offers important insights into just how we got to where we are now.

To find out more about how your consumer choices can make a difference, see our resources about industrial meat production and consult our Eat Well Guide to find locally sourced meats raised without vertical integration!