by Christopher Leonard
Simon & Schuster (1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2014.
370 pages; hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions available.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
The meat hook on the cover of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business is misleading. Relatively little of The Meat Racket is in any way about slaughtering, butchering, or even about pigs and cattle, the species whose carcasses are most often hoisted on hooks.
Rather, most of The Meat Racket is about “chickenizing,” the process by which three generations of the Tyson family and their corporate partners, rivals, and associates have made “vertically integrated” sharecropping the nearly universal business model for animal husbandry-based agribusiness in 21st century North America.
There is not really much about chickens in The Meat Racket, either, though author Christopher Leonard focuses on the Tyson chicken empire, Don Tyson in particular, who took over his father’s business, built it from the margins of agribusiness to national dominance, and eventually passed it to his much less accomplished son.
The Meat Racket is high-quality investigative business journalism, introducing the characters who invented and developed “chickenizing,” exploring how it came to be and how it operates, and then following the lives of several of the “chickenized” farm families whose labor and investment support the Tyson empire.
The Meat Racket also explains and succinctly traces how the Smithfield corporation “chickenized” the pig industry, and examines why “chickenizing” has taken longer to transform cattle production, but is occurring nonetheless.
The components of “chickenizing” begin with developing successful mass production techniques for raising animals, then establishing economic control of every aspect of the industry, from hatching chicks or farrowing pigs through producing and distributing specialty feeds to maximize growth, transporting the animals, killing them, and selling their remains.
Farmers have little choice
Successful “chickenizing” includes gaining such predominance in a particular geographic area that the farmers who actually raise the animals to slaughter weight have little choice about who to contract with: no rival company serves the same territory.
Consumers may have some choice as to which mega-conglomerates’ products they choose to buy at the supermarket, but even this appearance of choice is much narrower than appears at a glance because of the practice of each mega-conglomerate owning multiple brand names.
Farmers typically have almost no choice in any aspect of what they do, especially after committing everything they have, including their labor for decades, to paying off the high initial investment in the barns and other equipment, most of it extremely specialized, needed to raise poultry or pigs in an economically viable manner.
But farmers take the risks
In the “chickenized” business model, the Tysons and other “chickenizing” corporations reap most of the profits at every level of the “vertically integrated” economic structure, but take almost none of the risks at the step most vulnerable to misfortune from inclement weather, natural disaster, disease, or failures of personal health: actually “growing” the animals. The “chickenizers” deliver the young stock and the feed, and collect the animals at the end of the “growing” cycle, but any adversity occurring during the “growing” cycle falls exclusively on the farmers.
Meanwhile, in place of open marketplace competition to see whose chickens, pigs, or ––increasingly––cattle fetch the highest prices at auction, farmers “compete” with each other through a “tournament” system that ostensibly rewards the most effective and efficient producers, while encouraging the rest to improve. But since there are no buyers in the “tournament” other than the “chickenizer,” the tournament system really amounts only to the “chickenizer” deciding how little they can pay producers and still keep them in business.
Producers have effectively no opportunity to seek higher prices elsewhere, and no way to find out who else is paid what. If they are informed that they are doing poorly in the “tournament” pricing system, they can only take the “chickenizing” conglomerate’s advice to invest more in newer equipment, incurring more debt to do so.
The economic processes and systems that Christopher Leonard exposes were not news to me––in fact, I exposed some of them myself to some extent, decades ago, on the “farm and business” beat for the Sherbrooke Record, of Sherbrooke, Quebec. But “chickenizing” as it existed then was only just beginning to take hold to the extent that it now has. Farmers then mostly still imagined themselves to be independent operators, unaware that “vertical integration” of agribusiness had returned them to the sharecropping production mode from which their forebears had only escaped a generation or two earlier.
Then, early in the twentieth century, for a brief time between dependence on railroads to move animals and crops, as exposed by Frank Norris in The Octopus (1901), and the late twentieth century rise of “chickenizers,” diversified independent family farmers had some hope of becoming prosperous––at least in the regions with the best soil, most favorable weather, and easiest motor vehicle access to markets.
Most of today’s cultural imagery and mythology pertaining to farming harks back to that era, albeit that it was interrupted by the Dustbowl and many smaller eco-disasters in other regions, and that the relative prosperity of the small family farmers in the most advantaged parts of North America never came to Appalachia or other less naturally favored areas.
Reality is that farming has never been a particular prosperous or economically stable enterprise for most participants.
The answer to the post-World War I ragtime question “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” is that most farmers and farm workers are never going to see Paris, or much of anywhere else, so long as they remain in a system that obliges them to take most of the economic risk while cutting them out of most of the profits.
“Chickenizing” is not so much a new development as a pendulum swing back toward quasi-serfdom for many of those caught up in it. Many of those people, today, as Christopher Leonard explores late in The Meat Racket, are immigrants from Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia, where they barely experienced anything else.
To “chickenize” an industry is, ultimately, to integrate animal exploitation and human exploitation on the largest scale accomplished yet.