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Alt-chicks: What goes into the trendy, tasty and expensive boutique poultry

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Chickens roam the pastures at Parker Creek Ranch

At first glance, Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket looks like the latest entry into James Patterson’s psychologist-turned-badass Alex Cross series. A shiny yet murderous meat hook in the foreground, blood red lettering and a subtitle that alludes to secrecy hardly brings to mind a farm. The non-fiction book, released February 18, also reads like a thriller, following the not-so-palatable history of Tyson Foods from its Depression Era roots as a humble Arkansas farm to a cost-cutting pioneer in massive farming operations.

But perhaps the darkest and juiciest “secret” part of Leonard’s book is the description of how current CEO Donnie Smith helped steer Tyson through an economic slump with an intricate way of cutting production, which encouraged raising prices and therefore profits. The timing for this had to be perfect, as Leonard points out. Smith and other top execs used software programs to predict how much meat would be purchased within a 180-day period by big clients (McDonald’s, Walmart). In the case of a projected surplus of fresh meat, which would lead to discounts, the company decided to cut production within the 180-day window. Prices for boneless, skinless chicken breast inevitably went up by 20 cents, according to Leonard.

“It’s not just that Tyson can cut supply, they cut it at strategic moments to manage supply and demand,” Leonard said during a phone interview last week.

Because Tyson and other big chicken companies control every aspect of production, from chick hatcheries to feed mills to slaughterhouses, there’s not a lot the government can do to stop them. Even antitrust legislative efforts during Obama’s first term went awry as lobbyists spent about $8 million to defeat a proposal by the president “which would institute new antitrust measures and curb the power of big meat companies” wrote Leonard in an essay excerpted on Slate. As he pointed out over the phone, the $8 million was solely for lobbying on this specific issue; this doesn’t include campaign contributions by big poultry.

As a former agribusiness reporter for The Associated Press, Leonard also went into the history of industrialized chicken production, how chicken monopolies were torn down through antitrust laws during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—which allowed for competition and fair market prices—to the current state of big chicken where three companies (Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride and Perdue Farms) control half of the chicken market in the U.S.

Grim? Yes. Changeable? Maybe in the long run.

“There has to be tremendous political willpower on behalf of the USDA. Whether it can happen within the last two years of this administration is doubtful … but the blueprint of the antitrust laws are sitting on the shelf at the USDA,” Leonard said, referencing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s not rocket science, but there’s too much money to be made.”

In The Meat Market, Leonard also clued readers into the lives of Tyson workers and farmers under contract with the company, several of whom have lost their farms trying to compete with other neighboring farms as part of Tyson’s tournament system. In so many words, farmers are pitted against each other in a Hunger Games-type tournament on “how much feed it takes a farmer for his chickens to gain one pound of meat.” Farms deemed less efficient are essentially driven out of business, in the same way poor District 12 tributes would rarely be named victors.

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