On the long list of careers at which I know I would fail miserably, farmer is near the top, right next to schoolteacher, personal trainer and anything involving dead bodies. Farming requires more than an extraordinary work ethic, a high tolerance for early-morning hours and physical exertion, and a certain resilience when it comes to the smell of poop. It calls for a stoic acquiescence to the whims of the universe, which has the power to make or break a farmer’s very livelihood with one infestation, one storm or one drought. Certainly everyone contends with the uncontrollable—to do so is in some way to be human—but farmers do it more than most. Their business is with the planet, and their job is to impose ritual on its otherwise unfettered chaos.
To cede control to the capricious nature of…nature is an inevitable facet of agricultural life, up there with muddy boots and waking up before bars have even closed in New York. But the sacrifice is, theoretically, in pursuit of a greater good, of an American dream that has less to do with big houses and nice things and more to do with living off the land, with owning something and using that something to generate something, not just wealth.
America has a long history of attempting to level the playing field for farmers, with subsidies and regulations intended to limit the volatility wrought by both mother earth and the free market, equally fickle bitches. But perils persist: In 2012, the median farm income was negative $1,453. You read that right: Half of farmers are losing more than $1,453 a year. It’s no wonder that they commit suicide at a rate just under two times that of the general population. One need look no further than the produce—and now meat—sections at Walmart to understand that food has become Big Food, and where Big ___ goes, the slow suffocation of the average employee follows.
Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket is concerned with only a microcosm of a microcosm of the food business as a whole: The book focuses on the genesis of the now-ubiquitous Tyson Foods, a company that currently raises 1 of every 5 chickens eaten in the United States. But while Tyson is just one company, and chicken (plus, as Tyson expands, beef and pork) are just one agricultural sector, the Tyson story could and does easily stand in for the plight of farmers as a whole. TMR is a maddening, soul-sucking tour through the influence of big business, and the bumbling complicity of government and regulators in the endless conglomeration of the American private sector.
“Before there is a chicken or an egg,” Leonard writes, “there is Tyson.” Founded in 1931—father/CEO John Tyson a child of the Depression, son/protégé Don the possessor of an entrepreneurial spirit—Tyson’s eventual expansion is driven by vertical integration. The company owns its chicken production process from start to finish, from breeding to hatching to feed to slaughter to shipping. Tyson sets the rules on the farms where its chickens are grown, and the company’s 1974 purchase of breeding lines from Cobb-Vantress gave it ownership over the actual genetics of the best flock of birds for breeding. The only thing Tyson doesn’t own is the thing that provides the least return on investment: the land. That it leaves to contracted farmers, who must raise chickens provided to them by Tyson with feed provided to them by Tyson, following rules set down by Tyson. And yet, if something goes wrong with the chickens—say, an inexplicable illness that kills hundreds of birds at multiple Tyson farms—it is the farms, not Tyson, who must bear the cost.
According to Leonard, there are myriad Tyson practices that line corporate pockets at the expense of contract farmers. In its early days, the company exploited a loophole in accounting regulation that let it file taxes as a family farm, long after it had become much more, while blocking wage increases and unionization efforts among its workers. Tyson managers were found to be purposefully sending bad batches of birds to farmers who complained, and perhaps most important, the company’s longstanding tournament system, which determines what farmers make for a batch of chickens by stacking their performance up against their neighbors’ in a zero-sum game, makes it so that every chicken farmer’s raise is inherently another’s pay cut. Worse, farmers aren’t even allowed to discuss their tournament results with each other, or with lawyers.
Not that Tyson is alone in this. The company has always had two major, if not allies, then parties willing to enable its bad behavior, or look the other way . The first is the U.S. government, which, when not making outsized loans to farmers with little chance of recouping their investment, is guaranteeing even larger loans, with even riskier prospects, thereby contributing to a vicious cycle of state-of-the-art, highly indebted farms outgunning smaller less-equipped farms, whose losses in the tournament then ultimately subsidize the larger farms’ upgrades. It’d be like if Major League Baseball took money from a minor league team to pay for new uniforms for the Yankees.
Attempts at regulating the meat industry have also fallen short. While poultry, pork and beef have their own separate evangelists in the lobbying world (because of course they do), industrial food lobbyists smartly stick together. As Leonard puts it, “a regulation over one of them could open the door to regulation over others….They fight together, and they profit together.” Likewise, when contract farmers do win a a battle—as they did against Smithfield Foods in 2005—their victories don’t seem to spread across state or company lines. What’s ruled illegal treatment of Iowa hog farmers might still be legal for chicken farmers in Arkansas.
The other culprit in the meat racket is us, the American eater (and probably more specifically, me, lover of bodega-made deli sandwiches, meat provenance unknown). Writes Leonard,
While Tyson has been the architect of this system, the driving force behind it has been the American consumer. Americans have decided that meat must be cheap and plentiful. It must be consistent in its attributes and predictable in its taste. It takes factory farms to raise meat like that. It takes companies like Tyson. It takes networks of chicken farmers integrated tightly with big slaughterhouses like the one in Waldron. It takes a steady flow of genetically selected pigs from the nursery in Holdenville, Oklahoma, that are shipped to contract farms in Iowa for raising. It requires massive feedlots, controlled by contracts, that can guarantee a nonstop supply of cattle. The system also requires the rules that Tyson has imposed. This is what delivers the cheap pork chop, the Zilmax-infused hamburger patty, and the ever-ready supply of chicken McNuggets.
To be sure, the aforementioned ineptitude of regulators hasn’t made our job as consumers easy: There is a slow but persistent call for, at the very least, transparency when it comes to what we put in our mouths, and Big Food has been fighting it every step of the way. But just because information isn’t handed over on a silver platter—or an adhesive label—doesn’t mean it can’t be sought out, and that information should include not only what’s in our food, but the implications of throwing up our hands when it comes to who’s making it. As Leonard notes, today, unlike in the 1930s, “the decimation of the family farm is an accepted fact of American life and is mourned only in sentimental terms.”
Despite the valiant efforts of people like Willie Nelson, this is for the most part true. We as a country have decided that when it comes to food, consistency, convenience and cost are to be valued above all, and the rapid expansion of companies like Tyson, or Walmart’s audacious foray into meats, is a testament to those three Cs. Throughout TMR, Leonard works hard to temper his judgment, to let the facts (and Tyson’s lackluster explanations) speak for themselves. And truly, no additional commentary is necessary. But when it comes to the American consumer, Leonard lets a little judgment slip through, and it’s not hard to see why. Over the last few decades, while we were discovering our cell phones and indulging the existence of Justin Bieber, a massive transformation was taking place in the meat industry; a transformation whose aftermath we are now living in. In 2012, the median income for farmers was negative $1,453. Meanwile, Tyson CEO Donnie Smith made $4.3 million.
OTHER STATISTICS TO MAKE YOU RETHINK YOUR CHICKEN WINGS:
- In 1940 farmers bought only about 34% of the inputs like fuel and feed that they needed to run their farm, producing the rest themselves. By the early 1960s, farmers bought about 63% of their inputs.
- In 1969 the average American ate about 39 pounds of chicken each year. By 1995 he ate an average of 70 pounds of chicken a year. By 2013 the average had risen to 81 pounds of chicken a year.
- In 1925, it took fifteen weeks to raise a chicken that weighed 2.2 pounds. By 1990, it took only about four weeks.
- By the mid-1990s, Tyson controlled about 25% of the U.S. chicken market and the top four chicken producers controlled over half the U.S. poultry business
- By 1992, 88% of all chicken in the United States was produced in large, heavily mechanized slaughterhouses. In 1967, just 29% of chickens came from big processing plants.
- In 1979 Tyson’s annual sales were $382.2 million. By 1989, they were pulling in $2.5 billion a year.
- In 1980, hog farmers earned about 50 cents for every dollar a consumer spent on pork. By 2009, hog farmers were only earning 24.5 cents for every dollar spent on pork.
- In 1995, the top four meat companies controlled only about 46% of the total hog market. By 2006, the top four companies controlled 66%.
- In 1999 the Arkansas Farm Service Agency guaranteed $49.9 million in new farm loans. By 2001, the FSA guaranteed $68.4 million in loans.
- This isn’t a statistic, but “cornish game hens” are actually just regular chickens who were killed younger, hence the size, and sold frozen instead of refrigerated. My entire childhood of faux-luxurious suburban dinners is ruined.
TITLE: The Meat Racket
AUTHOR: Christopher Leonard
PAGES: 326 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Secret History, The Little Friend
SORTA LIKE: The Big Short meets Food Inc.
FIRST LINE: “Kanita Yandell was waiting for the men to come and clean out the carcasses so her family’s farm could die in peace.”