A butcher prepares cuts of beef at on January 13, 2014 in North Miami Beach, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty

Tyson Foods, American Meat Institute respond to “The Meat Racket”

Updated
By Morning Joe staff

Author Christopher Leonard appeared on Wednesday’s Morning Joe. Below are two, full responses by Tyson Foods and the American Meat Institute. 

Tyson Foods Reaction to “The Meat Racket” by Christopher Leonard

Contrary to critics like Mr. Leonard, we provide opportunities for farmers to prosper and consumers to buy safe, affordable food.  Tyson Foods is one of the leading supporters of American farmers, paying more than $15 billion last year alone to the thousands of independent farmers who supply us. We depend on them and want them to succeed.  Some of them have been raising livestock and poultry for us for decades, and in some cases, for multiple generations. They own and operate their own farms and either sell their livestock to us or raise our chickens for us.

Our business is structured to meet the needs of our customers and ultimately consumers. We sell our products to retail and food service companies; however, we don’t set consumer prices. What we ask for our products is determined by supply and demand. No one company is big enough to control the market, especially in today’s global food environment. U.S. consumers still spend a smaller percentage of their total income on food than consumers in most other countries.

Meat production is already one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the country with laws covering such important areas as food and worker safety, livestock price reporting and product labeling as well as rules governing our business relationship with the farmers. But for us, it’s not just about regulations, it’s about people trying to do the right thing in every aspect of what we do, including how we work with farmers.

 

American Meat Institute Reaction to “The Meat Racket” 

“Chris Leonard’s new book The Meat Racket uses a series of personal stories and anecdotes to critique the U.S. meat and poultry industry.  His book makes clear his nostalgic vision for the U.S. meat and poultry industry:  a vision pining for a return to an earlier part of the 20th century where meat companies secured their livestock at auction barns, buying stations and from farmers they knew.  Although wrapped in a ‘good old days’ theme, such a system was less efficient and less precise in delivering products consumers wanted while forcing them to pay a higher potion of their income to obtain meat and poultry products. 

In fact, in a February 18 interview on Bloomberg TV after characterizing today’s meat industry as a “technological marvel,” Leonard was asked to point to a country with a better meat and poultry production system and he responded, “That nation is the United States in 1982.”  In 1982, Americans spent 8.3 percent of their disposable income on food consumed at home. Today, 5.7 percent of Americans’ disposable income is spent on food consumed at home.  Meat products graded at lower quality grades and the wide variety of products enjoyed today weren’t even offered.  In the industry, major initiatives in food safety, worker safety and animal welfare had not yet been implemented.  Perhaps Leonard wants to travel back in time to enjoy higher priced, lower quality and less convenient products, but we don’t and we are confident that our customers don’t either.

Although Mr. Leonard’s distaste for the modern U.S. meat and poultry industry is clear, the data paint a picture of a successful and innovative industry that contributes much to the nation’s nutrition, economy and communities.  Consumers in the United States spend less of their disposable income on meat and poultry than in any other nation in the world while enjoying the safest meat and poultry supply.  The meat and poultry industry employs approximately 500,000 people directly and contribute to jobs in foodservice and retail where its products are sold.  The industry pays billions of dollars in taxes that fuel communities and donates millions of pounds of products to feed hungry people through a longstanding partnership with Feeding America and many other organizations.

Satisfying consumer demands is commonly accomplished in the supply chain through contracting and marketing arrangements with livestock producers to purchase livestock that meet the often very detailed specifications and characteristics for animals, such as a certified breed, raised without hormones or antibiotics, lean, grass fed or organic.  These relationships between producers and processors are a positive development that livestock producers have said publicly they value greatly.  Not only do they get paid premiums for meeting specifications, their marketing agreements are treated as assets by banks when they seek to borrow money to invest in their operations.  Leonard’s view that these partnerships are somehow suspect is troubling, especially considering that the largest livestock organizations in the nation have actively opposed restrictions on marketing agreements.

Leonard makes much of the idea that four companies slaughter a large percentage of livestock and poultry in the U.S., but he ignores how similar meat and poultry processing are to many other industries and he omits or ignores data showing that numerous other industries, such as wireless communications (94.7 percent of the market share) or household appliances (90 percent of market share), have greater “four firm concentration ratios.”  His book also ignores how carefully the industry’s structure and behavior have been reviewed and scrutinized repeatedly by federal agencies and independent third parties and found to be dynamic and competitive.

Mr. Leonard’s criticisms of the meat and poultry industry should be examined against its results.  If a competitive industry that operates under the most intensive regulatory and inspection regime in America and still produces the safest, most varied, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world isn’t good enough for Mr. Leonard, then we challenge him to point to a nation with a better system.  While waiting for that answer, we’ll keep on providing meat and poultry to the 95 percent of Americans who routinely make our products part of their diets.

For more information, visit www.TheMarketWorks.org .

The National Chicken Council Reaction to “The Meat Racket”

WASHINGTON, D.C. —February 18, 2014—A new book released recently discussing the U.S. poultry industry does little to help consumers understand how food is made and ignores entire facts regarding the tremendous progress America’s family farmers and chicken companies have made by working together to produce safe and affordable food.

Christopher Leonard’s “The Meat Racket,” presents a completely one-sided view of U.S. poultry production.  Contrary to the picture he tries to paint with a few anecdotes in an effort to sell books, the facts tell a different story: American poultry production is a global model of progress and efficiency.  

“We understand that many people have questions about the modernization of agriculture and food production,” said National Chicken Council President Mike Brown. “And we welcome those questions, as well as thoughts on how best to feed the world while ensuring our food is safe, accessible and affordable.

“But that’s not what this book is,” said Brown. “It offers no solutions, no constructive criticism. It is just another hit piece.

“If Mr. Leonard took the time to speak with any significant number of the 25,000 family farmers who are supported in this system—many of whom have had successful and mutually beneficial partnerships with chicken companies for decades—what they thought, he would have gotten a very different story,” Brown said. “In fact, there is a rather lengthy waiting list for those who have heard good things about the chicken business and would like to enter in a similar fashion.  I guess happy and satisfied stories don’t sell books.”

To watch a video about the partnership that exists between family farmers and integrated chicken companies, click here

For more information about how the chicken industry is structured and what chicken farmers say in their own words, click here. 

According to Brown, the contract-grower model has remained strong for more than half a century because it is mutually beneficial to both farmers and chicken companies.

“Contract chicken farmers, for instance, are insulated from the volatile swings of the commodity markets,” he said.  “Two years ago, when grain prices more than doubled – driving up feed costs – contract farmers still received the same pay rate, with chicken companies absorbing billions of dollars in losses.  During that same period, many independent cattle and hog producers were forced to sell off animals early or drastically reduce production.”

Mr. Leonard, a well-known critic of modern agriculture, does hundreds of thousands of men and women a serious disservice by detracting from the important work they do in feeding American families.  At no point in the 351 pages of his book does he take time to shed light on the positive stories that take place every day in farm communities across the country.

Here are some other positive benefits to farmers and facts that tell a different story than what is presented in “The Meat Racket:”

  • Farmers no longer bear the financial risks of fluctuating feed, medication, baby chick and live broiler prices.
  • Between 1990 and 2010, incentives in grower contracts resulted in a 16 percent increase in a key factor in grower income, pounds produced per square foot of grower barns.
  • Between 1990 and 2010, improved production per square foot and higher payment rates per pound produced resulted in a 65 percent increase in grower income per square foot of the farmer’s house.
  • Incentives built into farmer’s contracts and research by chicken companies has greatly improved the welfare of chickens by reducing bird death loss significantly between 1990 and 2010.
  • Loan default rates of chicken farmers are among the lowest of any segment of agriculture.  Such a track record speaks to the stability of the system. 

The real winners of this system are consumers.  This vertical coordination has saved consumers well over $1 trillion on chicken purchases between 1980 and 2013 and has resulted in product innovation that has greatly widened consumer choice.   After adjusting for inflation, chicken today costs less than it did a decade ago. 

This system provides a level of traceability and accountability unparalleled by the majority of food production. No matter where they buy their chicken, consumers can rest assured that the eggs came from healthy breeder stock, the feed came from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed feed mills, and each product was made under careful inspection by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. 

“From hatchery to farm to processing plant, there is an unbroken chain of quality and food safety, as a result of vertical integration, that has led to the most technologically advanced, safest poultry production system in the world.” Brown added. “And we’ve done all of this while improving the welfare of the birds and reducing our environmental footprint threefold over the past several decades.”

More “Myths and Facts” about The Meat Racket can be found by clicking here.

Explore:

Morning Joe Book Excerpt

Tyson Foods, American Meat Institute respond to "The Meat Racket"

Updated