At that time, a butcher was on every few blocks in my Queens neighborhood—the shop was one of two that my grandfather ran along with his brother. In the s, supermarkets moved in and put most of the butchers out of business. Why bother going to a specialty meat store when you could have precut, prepackaged meat at the same place you purchase your other food? My grandfather and granduncle closed up shop and tried their luck with Laundromats instead.
Leonard, whether he means to or not, is also telling a broader story about American business, consumerism, and—most of all—greed.
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I want to be the best of the biggest. As Leonard explains, Tyson acquired ever-greater market share by riding out tough times with larger capital investments and the acquisition of smaller competitors. Farmers have no control over the quality of the feed or birds, and are beholden to Tyson in all that they do.
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Of course, those new farms eventually become old farms, too, losing their standing with the company as soon as a more robust competitor comes along. One farmer who had his Tyson contract canceled asked a company manager named Gary Roper how the company could do such a thing after it had spent so many years doing business with his farm.
The shrinking number of farmers who set out to be something more than race dogs find themselves swiftly and systematically punished when they step out of line. Two chicken farmers secretly recorded a Tyson Foods employee admitting as much.
The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business
The tournament is a zero-sum game in which those at the top earn at the expense of those at the bottom, who earn so little that they will be driven into bankruptcy if their rankings don't improve. This "helps push the financial risks of farming from Tyson to its farmers," Leonard writes.
Why not sell to someone other than Tyson? Well, there isn't anyone. Success in chicken farming, Leonard asserts, depends on the health of the chicks, the food they are fed and the technology of the farms. Tyson delivers the chicks and the feed.
Leonard reports rumors that farmers who complain are given sick chicks or poisoned food, so they will go bankrupt. As for the farms, newer ones can produce more chicken at a lower cost than older ones; Leonard tells of families who have sunk their savings into farms only to find themselves outgunned in the tournament by a newcomer, just when they thought they were getting clear of their debt.
This astonishing transformation of the rural economy and the subsequent impoverishment of those who are tied to it has largely escaped scrutiny until now because it has taken place in the boonies and the backwoods, the off-the-radar hamlets of states such as Arkansas. Take a case in point: Waldron, Ark.
Every eight weeks the company delivered tens of thousands of chicks to the Yandell farm; its vans returned later to collect grown chickens for slaughter. In , something went wrong. The Yandells' birds began dying overnight. Kanita entered the chicken houses to find the birds literally rotting, "their bodies like soft, purple balloons. The birds kept dying, one delivery after another, and in the end the Yandells lost their paychecks, their farm and their assets.
When The crew from Tyson finally arrived to gather the last flocks they were dressed in blue hazmat suits, as if fending off a plague.
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Soon enough, another crop of farmers willing to sign new contracts appeared in Waldron: Laotian refugees. Boonau Phouthavong bought a failed chicken farm and lived in impoverished conditions, working seven days a week until he in turn was bankrupted. He couldn't compete with other farmers who were able to afford more advanced equipment and produce fatter birds. Rural Americans have a word for what has happened to the economy of towns like Waldron.
They have been chickenized. After pioneering their model in the poultry business, Leonard says, Tyson set out to "chickenize" first the hog and then the cattle business. It has faced fierce resistance in the latter, but its practices still help set the standard for the entire industry.
Tyson was one of the first companies to use a growth hormone called Zilmax, which causes cattle to put on weight with astounding results. The technological advances, the cost savings and the efficiencies that Big Meat has brought about can't be overlooked. From the s through the s, this industrial meat machine provided tremendous benefit to American consumers.
By industrializing animal production, Tyson's system rewrote the stubborn biological equations that once constrained the meat industry.
Between and , the amount of time it took to raise a full-grown chicken fell from 73 days to 52 days. And the chickens got bigger during that time, expanding from an average 3.
book: the meat racket, the secret takeover of america’s food business
Perhaps most impressively of all, it took less and less chicken feed each year to accomplish this feat. Yup, you guessed it: all from Tyson Foods. But it appears that the miracles are slowing down.
Ironically, just as consumers traded away control over the way meat is produced, the meteoric production gains of industrialized animal production started to fade away.
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