A new book examines how one agribusiness giant remade the American meat industry
The Meat Racket:
The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business
by Christopher Leonard
Simon & Schuster
$28.00 List Price
I grew up in a house that was once my grandfather’s butcher shop. My father tells stories about playing near buckets of slick and glassy cow eyeballs in the back room, with sawdust on the floor and lambs hanging upside down in the store window. At that time, a butcher was on every few blocks in my Queens neighborhood—the shop was one of two that my grandfather ran along with his brother. In the 1960s, supermarkets moved in and put most of the butchers out of business. Why bother going to a specialty meat store when you could have precut, prepackaged meat at the same place you purchase your other food? My grandfather and granduncle closed up shop and tried their luck with Laundromats instead.
I thought of my family often as I read Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket. The book—a meticulous exposé of the meat industry—is about more than just how big companies, Tyson in particular, are ruining rural farmers. It’s also more than another installment in the stomach-churning saga of the industrialization of our food supply. Leonard, whether he means to or not, is also telling a broader story about American business, consumerism, and—most of all—greed.
Don Tyson, the man behind Tyson Foods’ stratospheric growth, once told his managers, “I don’t want to be the biggest or the best. I want to be the best of the biggest.” But the model of success he adopted—dubbed “expand or expire” in the firm’s Arkansas corporate offices—clearly privileges size over quality. As Leonard explains, Tyson acquired ever-greater market share by riding out tough times with larger capital investments and