Feature

Book of the week: The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business by Christopher Leonard

Christopher Leonard’s book “burns slow and hot with outrage” at how firms like Tyson Foods control and squeeze the farmers who raise our livestock.

(Simon & Schuster, $28)

Reporter Christopher Leonard appreciates a good Horatio Alger tale as much as anyone, said Dan Charles in NPR.org. There’s in fact “a note of admiration” in his account of how John Tyson, the son of a failed Arkansas farmer, survived the Depression by trucking chickens to cities up north, then handed over the business to a clever son who turned Tyson Foods into a global empire and America’s largest poultry processor. “Leonard has no admiration at all, though, for the system of chicken production that Tyson built,” arguing that it locks farmers in an arrangement that resembles 19th-century sharecropping. Other writers have made a similar case, but The Meat Racket is “probably the most detailed account of the inner workings of Tyson” and how firms like it control and squeeze the farmers who raise our livestock.

Leonard “manages to tell the story from inside the fortress walls of Big Food itself,” said Nick Reding in The New York Times. He sat with longtime CEO Don Tyson before the folksy billionaire’s 2011 death, covered boardroom dramas across the industry, and interviewed farmers driven to ruin by Tyson and its peers. As a result, Leonard’s book “burns slow and hot with outrage” until the moments when it proceeds at the pace of a thriller. Tyson, we learn, came to dominate the poultry business by buying up almost the entire supply chain: feed production, slaughterhouses, trucking, processing plants. The company—and its three most potent imitators—thus dictate price at all levels. Independent farmers even have to submit to a “tournament system” in which they’re ranked against neighbors each week according to how much grain each farm needs to produce a pound of meat. Tyson then pays less for the losers’ chicken to penalize them. If they lose regularly, they’re through.

Tyson and its peers aren’t likely to change anytime soon, said Christine Sismondo in the Toronto Star. Leonard shows how lobbying money has killed reform efforts, and Big Food’s political power might matter even less than a second factor: “We, as voters, like cheap food.” Leonard probably overstates Tyson’s power as well, said Bethany McLean in The Washington Post. The company might be putting the screws to farmers, but Tyson’s operating income is trending downward as it gets squeezed by customers like Walmart, which now accounts for a “stunning” 13 percent of Tyson’s sales revenue. Pretending that Tyson is the whole problem “won’t help us find a real solution.”

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