Book Review: The Meat Racket
Why do journalists or writers keep picking on the U.S. meat and poultry industry? I’ve asked myself that question over the past ten years, as I have watched everyone from the New York Times to ABC News publish or transmit biased, dishonest stories on individual companies or the industry.
Such attacks contradict two central facts about the industry. First, that it provides Americans with the most secure and safe supply of affordable protein in the world. Second, that it is the most highly regulated industry in the world and is subject to more daily scrutiny than even the nuclear industry.
Throw in also the fact that the number of deaths or illnesses attributable to meat or poultry is tiny compared to guns, automobiles, alcohol and even cell phones. So I am bewildered why the industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and is the backbone of many rural communities, remains a target for supposed “investigation”.
I thus approached “The Meat Racket – The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business” with trepidation. I wanted to be neutral about what author Christopher Leonard had written. But as I read his book, which focuses almost obsessively on Tyson Foods, I became more disenchanted with every page.
Leonard for some time was the national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press. AP presumably forced Leonard to be an objective reporter and not allow his biases to enter his stories. But author Leonard casts off these restraints and allows all his prejudices to show.
He abandons any pretence of producing a portrait of a company and an industry with any semblance of balance. The result is a craftily-written book that plays into all the anti-industry prejudices of people like him. But those in the industry know that Leonard’s portrayal of the industry is simply an attempted hatchet job, and the vast majority of Americans will never hear about the book.
This left me with the feeling of “So what? What a waste of time and paper”.
Potboiler Masquerades As Serious Study
Leonard does what others have done before him, albeit in more detail. He starts with an empty cauldron, stirs in a recipe of half-truths, myths, prejudices, contradictory economic facts and the experiences of a handful of disaffected former Tyson chicken growers and employees.
The result is a potboiler masquerading as a serious exploration of a highly complex industry. Leonard wastes no time in showing his bias. One page 3 of his prologue, he writes of a “hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation’s meat supply.”
What nonsense. As a meat company and a publicly-traded company, Tyson is heavily scrutinized daily by federal regulators on several levels. He ignores the fact that there is intense competition throughout the meat and poultry industry for both supplies and customers.
Leonard writes that Tyson reaps “massive profits and remains almost entirely opaque to the consumer”. More nonsense. Tyson did earn record net income of $778M in fiscal 2013. But this was a meager 2.3% of total sales. As for remaining “opaque”, I have no idea what he means.
The Tyson brand is one of the most recognized in the entire food industry. It is presumably one of the most trusted as well, otherwise Tyson would not be the successful company it is. It’s also worth noting that Fortune magazine earlier this month named Tyson as one of America’s most admired companies.
It was one of six companies to make the list in the Food Production category and the only meat company among them.
More nonsense follows. Leonard claims that companies like Tyson can raise the price of meat at will. No reference here to the fact that retailers and foodservice operators control the price of food to consumers. He also claims Tyson sets the rules for how meat is produced and asserts that “Tyson was among the first companies to aggressively use a little-known growth hormone called Zilmax.”
If Leonard can make so many errors in one sentence, how can you trust any other part of his 319-page book?
Leonard’s prologue shows that, at least for purposes of selling a book, he becomes a rabid prairie populist. Such people would like nothing better than to return modern U.S. agriculture, the envy of the world, to the 1950s model. This model was of small, inefficient farms that delivered much higher-priced food to Americans and an industry that hardly exported little food compared to today.
Perish the thought that Leonard and others might ever acknowledge the fact that America’s farmers, ranchers and growers every day contribute to alleviating hunger at home and throughout the world.