Chicken Run

The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business BY Christopher Leonard. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 384 pages. $28.

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

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 the acquisition of smaller competitors. Tyson also pitched McDonald’s relentlessly over a fourteen-year stretch to expand its menu to include chicken—thereby indoctrinating a whole new generation of American kids into the magical folk belief that barnyard fowl evolve more or less spontaneously into breaded-nugget form. In all these endeavors, Leonard shows, Tyson’s more, more, more motto made him the epitome of American capitalist success.

Leonard, a former agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press and a fellow at the New America Foundation, exhaustively shows how Tyson’s financial and business insatiability revolutionized the production of chicken—and eventually the rest of the meat industry as well. (Indeed, Leonard devotes the second part of this three-part book to the “great chickenization” of other foods.)

Leonard claims that the Tyson firm has essentially made modern sharecroppers out of American poultry farmers by a relentless drive to vertically integrate all the company’s operations. The process began under the leadership of Don Tyson’s father, John, and built to the point where the firm controlled “every point in the chain of production where someone else might have made a profit.” Today, Tyson makes the feed, hatches the birds, gives them to farmers to raise, then picks them up for slaughter and processing. Farmers have no control over the quality of the feed or birds, and are beholden to Tyson in all that they do. Tyson also worked with banks to ensure that farmers were given huge loans, creating what Leonard calls a new generation of “indentured farmers.”

Tyson even pits farmer against farmer in a “tournament” for best standing with the company, an agricultural version of the Hunger Games that puts old farms out of business as newer farms—outfitted with more generous loans and bigger equipment—take their place. (Of course, those new farms eventually become old farms, too, losing their standing with the company as soon as a more robust competitor comes along.)

One farmer who had his Tyson contract canceled asked a company manager named Gary Roper how the company could do such a thing after it had spent so many years doing business with his farm. Roper replied with a folksy-yet-predatory homily: “If you were running a dog race, and you were getting outrun all the time, then there wouldn’t be much use in your being in it.”

The shrinking number of farmers who set out to be something more than race dogs find themselves swiftly and systematically punished when they step out of line. Leonard reports that any farmers who complain about Tyson’s service or bigfooting tactics will be given the worst chicks and bad feed. Two chicken farmers secretly recorded a Tyson Foods employee admitting as much. Another employee tells Leonard that he heard a plant manager direct a truck driver to deliver feed that had been spilled on the road and contaminated with gravel and dirt to a known “troublemaking” farmer who groused about disparities in pay.

The company’s sketchy dealings aren’t confined to farms and feedlots. Leonard notes that Tyson has a long history of using legal loopholes for profit. By getting the megafirm classified as a “family farm” rather than as a factory, for example, Tyson lawyers avoided paying more than $26 million in taxes in 1985 alone. The same maneuver has permitted Tyson to avoid paying minimum wage to thousands of seasonal workers in its employ.

Thanks to the firm’s laser-like focus on realizing any and every marginal advantage, Don Tyson’s grand vision of market domination came to fruition. In 1969, the average American ate thirty-nine pounds of chicken a year; by 1995, that figure had nearly doubled to seventy pounds. Last year, it was eighty-one pounds. A meat that had formerly served as a treat for special occasions is now an all-American comfort food on par with the hamburger.

Of course, as Leonard points out in grisly detail, the chicken that we’re eating has changed quite a bit as well. Gone are the days when beautiful whole roasted chickens commanded the center of the dinner table. Now we eat “chicken-based product” plucked from chickens with breasts so big their skeletons can’t handle the weight. This nonnutritious soft and pale meat escapes our notice because we’re just breading and frying it, anyway. (Leonard’s forensic descriptions of sick and dying Tyson chicks—“bloated and black like little balloons”—made me never want to see a drumstick again.)

The Meat Racket is far from a trailblazing exposé of factory-farmed meat and the food industry. In the last few years, ruminative and/or sensational books on the ethics of food have become a subgenre unto themselves. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001) is perhaps the founding text of this recent boom. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and other works, Michael Pollan changed the way we look at corn and the importance of the dinner table; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009) ensured we’d never look at pigs the same way again. And I’d be remiss not to note that feminists have been raising ethical questions about meat consumption for decades—Carol Adams published The Sexual Politics of Meat back in 1990.

What makes The Meat Racket stand out is Leonard’s superb storytelling and his clear passion for the topic. At times, he seems almost as obsessed with Tyson Foods as Don Tyson was with selling chicken. He is a man on a mission—and that is clearly the best kind of reporter to write a book like this.

The sheer volume of information in The Meat Racket can be a bit overwhelming; the finer points of chicken breeding and slaughter can be lost on those of us who don’t live and breathe agricultural politics. And Leonard sometimes bypasses real gems in the rush of his larger narrative. There’s a virtual Malcolm Gladwell parable, for instance, buried in the saga of how Tyson managed to market the Cornish game hen as a high-end delicacy. (In reality, all the company’s chickens were Cornish; the “game hens” were just killed younger.) And while the book’s third section addresses the activist and legislative backlash against food titans like Tyson, it’s not nearly as meaty (if you’ll pardon the phrase) as the rest of the book.

Still, The Meat Racket is truly impressive in teasing out the stories of individual players in the great leviathan of the modern meat industry. Some of these concern the plight of farmers like Jerry and Kanita Yandell, from Waldron, Arkansas, a couple who were exceptionally proud to own their own farm after Jerry’s childhood as a migrant farmworker, but who got crosswise of the Tyson juggernaut and went under. Others are tales of stubborn survival, if not economic triumph, like that of the Laotian immigrant Boonau Phouyavong, who weathered a year without bird deliveries from Tyson for what they told him was his poor output, before resuming business. And then, of course, there’s the great land-and-fowl baron choreographing all these rapidly consolidating market forces—Don Tyson himself.

Since Leonard’s book was published in late February, the meat industry has swiftly sought to downplay its revelations. In one typical counteroffensive, Tyson flacks have declared that their business “is structured to meet the needs of our customers and ultimately consumers,” insisting that “no one company is big enough to control the market.” But they haven’t had much to say about the smaller farmers driven under in the wake of their success.

Like The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s classic early-twentieth-century exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Meat Racket documents in scarifying detail what most of us should already know, especially in the long aftermath of the 2008 meltdown: Economic concentration rarely works to the advantage of ordinary market players, no matter how many times corporate communications specialists insist in press releases that their companies are merely humble servants of the sovereign consumer. But by bringing this point home so forcefully, in a way that should prompt double takes at many dinner tables, Christopher Leonard has struck a blow for a less “chickenized” America—in all senses of the word.

Jessica Valenti, a contributing editor at The Nation, is the author of four books, most recently Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness (New Harvest, 2012).