Processed foods are an easy target for lovers of food. Processed foods contain lots of salt, sugar, and fat—so succinctly described in a prior You Must Read entry—and are generally nutritionally worthless given the calorie load. However, as we turn our eyes toward making food from scratch we uncover that almost every ingredient we can get our hands on is touched by some vestige of this gigantic soul sucking menagerie known as the modern American food system.
Although the United States has no living memory of epidemic food shortages—the closest being the Depression, but those are much more endemic examples—our food system has been shaped in the past half century or so to pump out calories, regardless of the environmental, economic, or public health consequences.
The meat we eat is no different. In Christopher Leonard’s Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business Tyson Foods and its principals are used as the lens through which to witness the transformation of the three major meat products: chicken, pork, and beef.
Don Tyson, the son of the founder of what would become Tyson Foods, may have gotten his start with chickens in Arkansas but his company—through growth and acquisition—is now the single largest player in bringing meat to the supermarkets of America. As consumers we rarely think about the meat we buy because it is not branded and labelled like the foods in the middle aisles. We do not go to the store specifically to buy IBP sirloin like we might Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. This is further obfuscated by the fact that the butcher counter appears to be a place where carcasses are brought in from a local slaughterhouse and broken down into saleable components. This could not be further from the truth. After reading this book I spent some time really scanning the meat in the refrigerated cases and the butcher counter. Imagine my surprise to see big boxes emblazoned with IBP—a subsidiary of Tyson Foods—being brought from the back. Don’t even think about the chicken patty you ate from the drive-through on the way home from work.
There was a time when the country was scared of this type of consolidation. Think about the changes after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published. How is it any different now? One giant firm is able to almost single handedly control the price of chicken, pork, and beef in the United States through a series of internal levers. Don’t believe the hyperbole? Tyson Foods has been found guilty in the past of violating the fairly toothless Packers and Stockyards Act. In 2004 the company was found guilty of manipulating the price of cattle, assessed damages of $1.28 billion, and managed to wiggle free when the U.S. Court of Appeals voided the decision. So, even when the company is caught and convicted it does not matter because an Uncle Sam that is bought and paid for will step up to the place for Tyson Foods.
Anti-trust lawsuits are essentially useless anymore because big business is so entwined with the regulators and prosecutors assigned to bring such cases forward. What lawyer in the Justice Department is going to anger every major corporation in America, thus narrowing post-public service job offers from prominent DC law firms, by bringing a case against the meat cartel? What functionary in the USDA is going to spend a career hunting one of these big game targets when it is just easier to accept a job in industry after leaving civil service? The answer is…no one. Combined with the power and agency given to these corporations by the money given to political campaigns—remember, it’s really just speech according to the Supreme Court—elected officials are even worse.
Farmers and ranchers are stuck in the untenable situation of trying to remain independent of a system that has been changed to render the independent farmer and rancher obsolete. Rather it’s a system that turns them into indentured servants and sharecroppers. If allowed Tyson Foods would like to “chickenize” the entire production of meat. This is a system where Tyson owns the chickens and every aspect of production save for the low margin and risky job of raising the animals. In essence, Tyson Foods has outsourced the worst part of their business and shuffled the capital intensive raising of animals to an increasingly indebted farmer who has little or no control over their own fate.
The state of affairs regarding the consolidation of the meat industry and, therefore, where the power resides is best summed up by Leonard’s statement in the final sentence of the book referring to farmers raising livestock in America today:
Tyson is waiting to take their call, and ready to shape their future. [Page 319]
I suppose the easiest answer to the problem is to just stop eating meat at all. Maybe those vegan activists were on to something when I was in college. Heck, we eat too much meat in this country anyway.
Short of going vegan there is only one solution: remove yourself from the marketplace. Don’t eat at fast food restaurants because the meat is sure to come from Tyson Foods or one of its equally odiferous nominal competitors. If you want to eat meat source it as directly from the livestock producer as possible. It seems like this is the solution to a lot of problems related to food production in the United States, but that is because the market is fatally flawed and skewed toward major corporations. The price we pay in the grocery store goes up, yet the price paid to the farmer goes down. Who pockets the delta? Companies like Tyson Foods.