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Thinking About Where We Get Our Meat

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Nicholas Kristof wrote a column for the New York Times this week about the current state of America's meat industry, describing the handful of giant companies that control the vast majority of our meat supplies as an oligopoly.

Kristof raises numerous concerns about the way beef, pork, and poultry are produced. He points out that the "farm-raised" animals that supply the meat are kept in disgusting, unhygienic, and downright torturous conditions. Chickens, he points out, are bred to grow especially abnormally: "Poultry Science journal has calculated that if humans grew at the same rate as modern chickens, a human by the age of two months would weigh 660 pounds."

He also draws considerable insight from Christopher Leonard's The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, a book I recently read and highly recommend. Leonard's book chronicles the rise of Tyson Foods, the country's largest meat producer and a company that supplies nearly all of the chicken consumed in the US. The Meat Racket is a fascinating look at how Tyson upended the agriculture industry, changing not only how our food is made but what we actually eat.

Before Tyson's rise to power, chicken was a relative delicacy. Kristof's column mentions that, in 1930, chicken cost an average of $6.48 a pound (adjusted for inflation); because of Tyson, chicken today costs an average of $1.57 per pound. In the first half of the 20th century, chicken was eaten with about the same frequency we eat turkey today-it was a "special occasion" bird. But by inventing a new form of poultry farming, Tyson made chicken America's most-eaten meat.

Leonard's book is less critical of the health questions we must ask about Big Meat than it is with the way Tyson (and the companies that followed in Tyson's wake) changed farming and crushed rural industry. The father-son team of John and Don Tyson got their chicken production company off the ground from its humble origins in rural Arkansas by buying up every step of chicken production they could. They realized that by owning the animals, the feed, the slaughterhouses, the packing, and the distribution, they could minimize risk and maximize profit. The only step in the process they chose to outsource was also the riskiest: the farming itself.

Tyson contracts with local farmers to care for its chickens. Farmers receive a supply of baby chicks, feed, and medicine, and then are charged with raising and fattening up the birds for six weeks, when Tyson trucks arrive to collect the birds to return them to Tyson's facilities to be slaughtered. The farmers don't own the birds and are only paid for what they able to return to Tyson-they aren't compensated for birds that die or don't grow fat enough.

This revolutionary method of producing meat transformed the role of the farmer. For centuries, farming had been a staple of the American economy and a symbol of small business. But today, the big meat companies use farmers as little more than janitors and caretakers, in charge of the riskiest-and least profitable-part of the process. Small, family-owned farms across America have been wrecked as other meat companies have copied Tyson; farmers today have very little control, and can be cut loose by the big companies at any time for any reason.

Kristof's column rightly points out that modern meat production has made meat considerably cheaper, which has undoubtedly helped people all throughout the world. We're able to eat for less money than we ever have, and this is unquestionably a good thing. Still, it hasn't been without a tremendous cost: the crippling of a section of middle-class American jobs. It's enough to make you think a little more about where the food you eat comes from.

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