The Meat Racket: The rise of the US chicken oligopoly

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Photo by Flickr user cfinke, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition, I learned about a just-released piece of investigative reporting that examines the business practices behind much industrial meat production. As Dan Charles describes,

Christopher Leonard’s new exposé on the chicken industry, The Meat Racket [subtitled “The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business”], doesn’t devote much ink to the physical object on our plate, the chicken meat itself.

Instead, Leonard focuses on the economic machinery that delivers the meat to us, 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 aims a spotlight at Tyson Foods, which helped create the modern chicken industry. And it recounts the stories of people, mostly farmers, whom Leonard contends Tyson has chewed up and cast aside since its incorporation in 1947.

As Kirkus Reviews summarizes, “Using Tyson as a window on modern meat production, Leonard shows how the company has eliminated free market competition through vertical integration, buying up independent suppliers (feed mills, slaughterhouses and hatcheries) and controlling farmers through restrictive contracts.”

Writing for Grist, Nathanael Johnson writes that the book

is a minor miracle of reporting. Tyson isn’t the sort of company that likes to show reporters around its operations. Its farmers are bound by contract — and cowed by fear of retribution — from showing anyone so much as a pay stub from the company. It’s secretive enough that we’ve known little about how the corporation operates, even though it touches everyone in America — economists have calculated that 5 percent of the average grocery bill goes to Tyson (which, beyond poultry, does a big pork and beef business as well). Leonard managed to penetrate that secrecy, and has painted an intimate picture of the company and the people who made it….

Farmers may be the most potent ingredient in Tyson’s formula. They 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, prodded by Tyson’s competitive fee scheme, who pay for upgrades to chicken houses — well, farmers, along with taxpayers. 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.

For more, check out the NPR piece (which includes some informative graphics and links), Johnson’s post, and an in-depth interview with author Leonard on AirTalk from public radio station KPCC.

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