Author says Tyson Foods keeps farmers in state of 'indentured servitude'

Monday, March 03, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: Tyson Foods, indentured servitude, farmers

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(NaturalNews) The author of a new expose on the chicken industry chastises corporate giant Tyson Foods while claiming that farmers who supply meat to the company are locked into a sort of "indentured servitude" of which they are unable to free themselves.

The book, The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard, focuses almost exclusively on the economic factors that drive the chicken industry or, as he says, "the hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation's meat supply."

Leonard notes that Tyson Foods helped create the modern chicken industry. In the book, he recounts stories of a number of people -- most of whom are farmers -- that the company has practically destroyed since incorporating in 1947. As reported by National Public Radio (NPR):

Leonard, now a fellow at the New America Foundation, once worked for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, covering business news in Tyson's home territory. And there's a note of admiration in Leonard's description of Don Tyson, the man who drove the company's rise to global superpower of meat after taking over the company when his father, John, died in 1967.

Ragged edge of bankruptcy

"I think he was a genius," Leonard told NPR's Renee Montagne. "Don Tyson had the ability to see the world as it did not yet exist. He saw that chicken would soon replace beef or pork as the most popular meat in the United States."

That said, Leonard has no admiration for the chicken production system built by Tyson. He says it is one that "keeps farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy."

The author's criticism is not new. In fact, NPR reports, activists devoted to farmers' rights, like the Rural Advancement Foundation International and the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, have opposed the consolidation of the poultry industry and other meat-packing industries for a number of years.

Also, early in President Obama's first term, the Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department held hearings over allegations of abuses by companies that dominate the meat industry. And a few weeks ago, a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts was released that was critical of the broiler industry.

But Leonard's book, NPR says, is likely the most authoritative account detailing the inner workings of Tyson, in addition to the relationship between poultry companies and farmers who actually raise the birds for slaughter and are not really as independent as they could be -- a relationship known as "contract farming," NPR reports. The concept was a poultry industry creation, but it is gaining in popularity in the pork and beef industries as well.

As noted by NPR:

In this system, the farmer owns the chicken houses, but the poultry companies are very much in control. They deliver the chicks on their own schedule -- in fact, they aren't required to deliver any flocks at all. They supply the feed, and the feed additives.

The industry denies all, of course

In his book, Leonard describes the relationship as a sort of con game that is run by the poultry companies, and of course to their benefit.

"Almost invariably, from everything I've seen, the farmer loses," he told NPR. "The farmer takes the brunt of the volatility; the farmer swallows the worst of the losses when there is a problem with their chickens."

Some farmers have lapsed into bankruptcy over contract farming arrangements, Leonard said. In fact, he implied that such an outcome was almost an inevitability.

The National Chicken Council, an industry lobbying organization, responded to a query by NPR with scores of quotes from poultry farmers and producers who vehemently defended the contracted growing agreements. The group also stated that, when grain prices spiked a few years back, chicken companies absorbed huge losses, while contract farmers were protected since they did not have to pay directly for the feed.

For its part, Tyson defended the contract farming arrangements.


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