In "The Meat Racket," Christopher Leonard writes about the state of America’s meat industry, most notably, poultry production. The book isn’t necessarily about animal welfare or the health consequences of eating animal products from factory farms. It’s more about how big business has come to monopolize the production of the meat we find in our supermarkets.

"Leonard is a harsh critic of the system as it now operates, not so much because of what it might do to our health but because of what he believes it does to farmers," wrote Bethany McLean, in a review of Leonard’s book for the Washington Post.

Leonard focuses on the Tyson family, which turned Tyson Foods into a megalith of modern farming by buying up competitors and expanding vertically in an effort to control every step of production, noted McLean.

Leonard claims Tyson’s tactics have wreaked havoc on middle America, transforming it from "an archipelago of clean, prosperous towns ... with busy town squares, bustling department stores and a thriving middle class" into a meth-ridden wasteland where "drugs and crime seep in ... where improvisational chemists left behind toxic waste."

While Tyson owns virtually all aspects of its food production operation, the one aspect it does not is the actual chicken raising, Leonard told Kerry Trueman for civileats.com.

"Once Tyson realized that the actual raising of the chickens was the one area of production that wasn’t profitable, they offloaded the risks onto the farmers.


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While Tyson pioneered the system, said Leonard, Cargill, JBS, Conagra, and Smithfield are using Tyson’s playbook.

"It’s at the expense of the American consumer, the environment, the livestock. (Tyson) pioneered the treatment of animals as widgets, like, how can we squeeze these animals into ever tighter quarters, how can we breed bigger chickens faster, even though their health suffers as a consequence."

A failed attempt by the Obama administration to rein in the abuses of the system "also illustrates the remarkable level of influence that giant meat companies have in Washington, where they quietly shape public policy to their advantage through groups like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council," wrote Leonard in his book. "Their well-orchestrated effort to beat back Obama’s reform efforts has arguably left them more powerful than they were when Obama entered office. And like many of the changes in America’s meat industry, it all played out under the public’s radar."

Prior to the de-regulation craze that swept across America during the Reagan administration, the four biggest beef companies controlled only 44 percent of the market and the four chicken producers controlled only 32 percent of the market.

But now, according to the National Family Farm Coalition, from 1980 to 2008, dairy operations declined from 334,000 to 60,000; hog and pig operations declined from 667,000 to 65,000; and cattle operations declined from 1.6 million to 956,000.

And that’s not all: DuPont and Monsanto control 58 percent of the market for corn seed and Monsanto also controls 90 percent of the transgenic soybean market and the transgenic cotton see market.

Meanwhile, Archers Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill control 90 percent of the global grain trade; JBS Swift, Tyson and Cargill control nearly 90 percent of the beef industry; Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill and JBS Swift control 66 percent of the pork industry and JBS Swift, Tyson, Perdue and Sanderson Farms control 60 percent of the poultry industry.

While the efficiencies that have been introduced due to the consolidations have kept the cost to consumers of meat down, it has also introduced its own set of hazards.

"More and more animals are raised on a single farm, so hundreds of thousands of pigs, or hundreds of thousands of chickens, may be raised under one roof," Robert Tauxe, the chief of the food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control, told PBS. "This gives the opportunity for pathogens to spread from one animal to another."

While we can rail all we want at the industry, the root of all of this is the American consumers’ willful blindness to the abuses of the industry, just as long as meat is plentiful and cheap.

"They’re not paying attention," said Leonard. "There’s too much of a mentality that if I walk into a store and the meat is there at an acceptable price, I don’t really care how it’s produced."

The result is not only the increase in the chances of a widespread outbreak of food poisoning, but also the "mediocritization" of meat.

"When you industrialize meat production -- and we’ve seen it happen first to chickens, then to hogs and cattle -- you’re not aiming for high quality, which brings high variability," said Leonard. "You’re aiming for that predictable middle point of quality, to where you can get that piece of meat to Walmart 24 hours a day as cheap as you can get it."

What can consumers do about it? Well, you could switch to a mostly vegetarian diet, but truth be told, there are as many abuses of the free market in vegetable production as there are in the meat industry. When you shop at a supermarket chain, you are basically buying right into the system.

And while it is true that the miracle of our food industry is there is enough for everyone to eat, it is not necessarily true that the food is healthy or gets to the people who need it the most. Still, there is a good argument that without factory farming, widescale famines would be devastating the world’s population.

Though most of us cannot totally opt out of the industrial farming syndrome -- unless, of course, you are one of those back-to-nature types who annoyingly prattle on about their own righteousness -- we can choose to patronize our local farmers and purchase meat, vegetables and fruit from them. We are lucky in this corner of the world to still have plenty of small farming operations that treat their animals and land with respect. And in season there are lots of farmers’ markets and CSAs and orchards where bountiful produce is made available. Yes, it’s more expensive than the factory farmed beef, chicken or carrots at the local market, but it’s also more flavorful and free of the chemicals, antibiotics and hormones that make agribusiness possible.

It also wouldn’t hurt us to cut down a little bit on our consumption of meat, as far as our own health is concerned. And there’s also the moral element of feasting every day on animals that have lived their less-than-comfortable short lives in brutish conditions.

Get to know your local farmer, pay a little more for tasty, healthy food and do yourself and the world a favor.

~ Brattleboro Reformer