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Kristof: An unappetizing look at the meat market

  • Chickens gather around a feeder in a Tyson Foods Inc. poultry house in rural Washington Co. Arkansas, Thursday, June 19, 2003. McDonalds Corp. has asked its meat suppliers, including Tyson Foods, to stop the routine use of antibiotics in their animals. (AP Photo/April L. Brown)

Where does our food come from? Often the answer is Tyson Foods, America's meat factory.

Tyson, one of the nation's 100 biggest companies, slaughters 135,000 head of cattle a week, along with 391,000 hogs and an astonishing 41 million chickens. Nearly all Americans regularly eat Tyson meat — at home, at McDonald's, at a cafeteria, at a nursing home.

"Even if Tyson did not produce a given piece of meat, the consumer is really only picking between different versions of the same commoditized beef, chicken, and pork that is produced through a system Tyson pioneered," says Christopher Leonard, a longtime agribusiness journalist, in his new book about Tyson called "The Meat Racket."

Leonard's book argues that a handful of companies, led by Tyson, control our meat industry in ways that raise concerns about the impact on animals and humans alike, while tearing at the fabric of rural America. Many chicken farmers don't even own the chickens they raise or know what's in the feed. They just raise the poultry on contract for Tyson, and many struggle to make a living.

Concerned by the meat oligopoly's dominance of rural America, President Barack Obama undertook a push beginning in 2010 to strengthen antitrust oversight of the meat industry and make it easier for farmers to sue meatpackers. The aim was grand: to create a "new rural economy" to empower individual farmers.

Big Meat's lobbyists used its friends in Congress to crush the Obama administration's regulatory effort, which collapsed in "spectacular failure," Leonard writes.

Factory farming has plenty of devastating consequences, but it's only fair to acknowledge that it has benefited our pocketbooks. When President Herbert Hoover dreamed of putting "a chicken in every pot," chicken was a luxury dish more expensive than beef. In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed for $6.48 a pound in today's currency, according to the National Chicken Council. By last year, partly because of Tyson, chicken retailed for an average price of $1.57 per pound — much less than beef.

Costs came down partly because scientific breeding reduced the length of time needed to raise a chicken to slaughter by more than half since 1925, even as a chicken's weight doubled. The amount of feed required to produce a pound of chicken has also dropped sharply.

And yet.

This industrial agriculture system also has imposed enormous costs of three kinds.


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