The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business

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Overview

The biggest takeover in American business that you’ve n ever heard of

The American supermarket seems to represent the best in America: abundance, freedom, choice. But that turns out to be an illusion. The rotisserie chicken, the pepperoni, the cordon bleu, the frozen pot pie, and the bacon virtually all come from four companies.

In The Meat Racket, investigative reporter Christopher Leonard delivers the first-ever account of how a handful of ...

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The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business

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Overview

The biggest takeover in American business that you’ve n ever heard of

The American supermarket seems to represent the best in America: abundance, freedom, choice. But that turns out to be an illusion. The rotisserie chicken, the pepperoni, the cordon bleu, the frozen pot pie, and the bacon virtually all come from four companies.

In The Meat Racket, investigative reporter Christopher Leonard delivers the first-ever account of how a handful of companies have seized the nation’s meat supply. He shows how they built a system that puts farmers on the edge of bankruptcy, charges high prices to consumers, and returns the industry to the shape it had in the 1900s before the meat monopolists were broken up. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the greatest capitalist country in the world has an oligarchy controlling much of the food we eat and a high-tech sharecropping system to make that possible.

Forty years ago, more than thirty-six companies produced half of all the chicken Americans ate. Now there are only three that make that amount, and they control every aspect of the process, from the egg to the chicken to the chicken nugget. These companies are even able to raise meat prices for consumers while pushing down the price they pay to farmers. And tragically, big business and politics have derailed efforts to change the system.

We know that it takes big companies to bring meat to the American table. What The Meat Racket shows is that this industrial system is rigged against all of us. In that sense, Leonard has exposed our heartland’s biggest scandal.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Nick Reding
…Christopher Leonard's brilliant, in-depth portrait of Tyson Foods…is primarily a book of reportage, the culmination of Leonard's decade as a national agribusiness reporter…What separates The Meat Racket from every other book about food in America is that it manages to tell the story not from the safe remove of an outsider but from inside the fortress walls of Big Food itself, from the meeting rooms to the mega-barns. The result is a book that at times burns slow and hot with outrage and at other times proceeds at the ecstatic pace of a thriller.
Publishers Weekly
03/31/2014
In the heated debate on food safety and availability, there have been other serious tomes about the national leviathan farming firms, but Leonard, former national agribusiness reporter for The Associated Press, pulls off a stunning feat in putting the heat on the major industrial meat giants. The hardest body blows are landed by Leonard on Tyson Food, the nation's biggest meat company, whose production and distribution practices were previously hush-hush, due to a rigid code of silence and potential retaliation on those who snitch. Founded during the Great Depression, Tyson Foods fashioned a highly profitable empire through smart alliances with bankers, creating a network of local contract farmers and keeping them on a short economic leash while controlling the entirety of the supply chain. Most alarming is the portion of the book that deals with the shortening of the amount of time it takes to raise a chicken, going from 73 days to 52 days during 1955 to 1982. Although Leonard devotes the lion's share of this exposé to Tyson Food, he also catalogues the feverish lobbying, clever patronage, and masterful financial and political schemes among the other giants, all in service of providing product cheaper and faster to the market. Best for those readers who want to know the origins of the animal products they are putting in their mouths. (Feb.)
Wall Street Journal
"Gripping...The Meat Racket is a riveting book, and the picture Mr. Leonard paints is a disturbing one."
The New York Times Nicholas Kristof
Leonard’s book argues that a handful of companies, led by Tyson, control our meat industry in ways that raise concerns about the impact on animals and humans alike, while tearing at the fabric of rural America.”
Eric Schlosser
“Cruelty, greed, and monopoly power—that is what Christopher Leonard has found at the heart of America's meat packing industry. This book offers a devastating portrait of an industry's irresponsible behavior.”
New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant…a book that at times burns slow and hot with outrage and at other times proceeds at the ecstatic pace of a thriller.”
The Washington Post Bethany McLean
"Only a very good writer could turn a story about chickens, hogs and cattle into a thriller, and Leonard is that. He brings his characters to life. . . . The book is a scary portrait of capitalism run amok."
Strategy + Business
“One of the best books of investigative reporting that I’ve seen in quite a while…if you think muckraking is dead or even on its last legs, The Meat Racket is proof positive that it’s very much alive. The big question is whether or not there are any reformers and regulators left who have the will and the strength to pick up the ball and run with it.”
New York Daily News
“A fascinating look at what has happened in the past decades to the meat business as huge companies essentially staged a takeover while no one, except struggling farmers, paid mind.”
Booklist
“In his eye-opener to the inner workings of the corporations that control and manipulate the nation’s meat supply, journalist Leonard reveals how these vertically integrated behemoths operate to the detriment of both farmers, who do the hard and risky work of raising animals, and consumers, who have actually fewer true choices when shopping in the grocery store or ordering at the local fast-food franchise.”
Grist
“A minor miracle of reporting. Tyson isn’t the sort of company that likes to show reporters around its operations…Leonard managed to penetrate that secrecy, and has painted an intimate picture of the company and the people who made it.”
Shelf Awareness for Readers
“This eye-opening investigation into the semi-shady practices governing one of the nation's fundamental industries will make readers question how these megacompanies were ever allowed to grow so large and powerful…. A compelling in-depth exposé of the concentration of wealth and power at the heart of the U.S. meat industry.”
Tracie McMillan
“Leonard’s primary concern is the grim and gripping story of how American meat went industrial. But he also spins a nuanced tale of how the family farm was America’s first small business—and what we’ve lost by letting it go. A fascinating read.”
Bookforum - Jessica Valenti
“A meticulous exposé of the meat industry . . . also telling a broader story about American business, consumerism, and—most of all—greed. . . . What makes The Meat Racket stand out is Leonard’s superb storytelling and his clear passion for the topic. . . . He is a man on a mission—and that is clearly the best kind of reporter to write a book like this.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-25
An engrossing report on the industrialized American meat business. Leonard, a fellow at the New America Foundation and former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, debuts with a richly detailed examination of factory farming, which has reshaped small-town life for the worse in Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and elsewhere, leaving a handful of huge companies with "unprecedented control" over the U.S. meat supply—most notably Tyson Foods, the biggest, which has $28 billion in annual sales with $780 million in profits. Using Tyson as a window on modern meat production, Leonard shows how the company has eliminated free market competition through vertical integration, buying up independent suppliers (feed mills, slaughterhouses and hatcheries) and controlling farmers through restrictive contracts. The strategy, soon a blueprint for other firms, worked first in the chicken business, then in the hog industry (some 90 percent of all hog farms disappeared), and now threatens the cattle business, where a minority of ranchers refuse to abandon their independence. As the author observes, all of this occurred out of sight of most Americans, who from the 1960s to '90s knew only that meat was cheap and plentiful in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets. Now, cost savings from factory farming are slowing down. In the meantime, rural communities have been "chickenized," with farmers dependent on the company in a bizarre, near-feudal system that forces many into bankruptcy. Sometimes, hopeful immigrants take over abandoned farms, only to face the vicissitudes of the least-profitable corner of the corporate meat business. Tyson's "cost-cutting ethos and the lack of competition restrains income growth in rural America," writes the author, and strong lobbying defeated the Obama administration's recent attempts at reform. Leonard's book traces the rise of Tyson, from its creation by former fruit farmer John Tyson in the Depression to the chicken evangelism of his son, Don, who spent 14 years convincing McDonald's to add chicken to its menu and helped make chicken the nation's most-consumed meat. An authoritative look at a ruthlessly efficient system.
From the Publisher
"Filled with interesting history of how the meat industry got to where it is and how government has attempted to reign it in, the sad story is laid out through excellent journalistic reporting. Narrator John Pruden's fittingly somber tone conveys the gravity of the situation. " —-Library Journal Audio Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451645811
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 2/18/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 43,648
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Leonard is a Schmidt Family Foundation Fellow with The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, DC. He is the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He lives outside Washington, DC.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2014

    Honest and good research behind this book and thoughtfully writt

    Honest and good research behind this book and thoughtfully written.  It's important for everyone to understand how an oligarchy or monopoly like we see in the meat industry can be damaging and open to abusive practices.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Know your farmer

    Thoroughly researched and easy to read

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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