Tyson’s “Meat Racket”: Factory Farming Hurts Family Farmers as well as AnimalsPosted by Liz Hallinan, ALDF Litigation Fellow on March 3, 2014
Agricultural corporations routinely trot out the cliché that fighting against them means fighting against American family farmers. However, Christopher Leonard, in his new book The Meat Racket, exposes this cliché for the falsehood that it is. The book offers an insider view into the largest meat producer in the world, Tyson Foods—against whom ALDF has filed a consumer protection complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for false “humane” advertising.
According to the author, Tyson (and the other large corporations that have copied Tyson’s business model) has taken from American farming families the control they used to have over their animals and their livelihood. Through a system called “vertical integration,” Tyson has turned these families into modern-day feudal peasants.
Vertical integration occurs when an agricultural corporation controls every step of food production. Tyson has perfected this system for chicken production. The corporation owns and operates the hatchery and provides the chicks to the farmer—but it also provides the feed, the medication, and the veterinary care the chickens require during their short lives. That way, Tyson pays the farmer only for the labor he expended raising the chickens, and only once they are collected for the Tyson-owned slaughterhouse. With this scheme, Tyson owns neither the farm nor the farm equipment, because “farming”—that is, raising the birds—is the least profitable link in the chain of production.
This means that Tyson, not the farmer, sets the standard for the way animals are housed and treated on the farm, including whether the animals are fed antibiotics and other drugs. Tyson can also demand upgrades to the farm buildings for more efficient feeding or air quality systems, costing family farmers upwards of $300,000, money they must inevitably borrow. Once farmers take on that debt to meet Tyson’s satisfaction, the farmer is at the mercy of the corporation’s payments to work off that debt. Tyson can walk away at any time from their promise to buy the farmer’s chickens, leaving farmers saddled with debt and facing bankruptcy.
A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust, The Business of Broilers, states “even highly capable and environmentally responsible growers can be constrained by heavy debt.” The report cites a study showing that 71 percent of growers whose only source of income was chicken farming were living below the poverty line. The report also found that vertical integration means that producers like Tyson often are not held legally responsible for the environmental problems caused by the large amount of waste produced by the animals. This is because the farmers, not Tyson, own the farm and its facilities, and these insights make Leonard’s book, The Meat Racket a worthwhile read.
Tyson claims that its products come from pigs and chickens in “favorable” and “comfortable” environments, claims that ALDF has charged are false and deceptive. Evidently, the only individuals who live and work in favorable and comfortable environments at Tyson Foods are its executives.