Wa Po Op-Ed: Thanksgiving Turkey is 'Un-American'

Writer says more competition is needed in meat industry, blames improvements in technology.

The Washington Post used its last Sunday op-ed space before Thanksgiving to run a promotion for an upcoming book. The book, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, is by former business reporter Christopher Leonard, who suggests that this Thursday Americans will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with something antithetical to their nation’s very existence.:

The turkey tells a story about our nation. But today, the story of turkey in America has seen independence replaced by servitude, and open markets by opaque contracts. If the Pilgrims had seen this coming when they sat down for the first Thanksgiving, they would have lost their appetites

Just four corporations — Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods — produce more than half of the turkey in the United States, a level of concentration unthinkable just a few decades ago. Even in the 1970s, the meat industry was defined by competition among dozens of companies that worked with independent farmers. But all that disappeared when a handful of corporations gobbled up their competitors and took control of the farms and slaughterhouses that make our meat.

Leonard, a former Associated Press reporter, suggests that the improvement in industrial technology has led to a decrease in competition in the turkey industry:

Don’t blame the poor turkey. The takeover of America’s meat industry began with its less-prestigious cousin, the chicken. Starting around the 1940s, chickens were pressed into the service of a new meat system that can only be described as feudal. In this industrial system, chickens are born in roosts where their eggs drop onto conveyor belts and are then shipped to giant hatcheries, after which the chicks are raised in warehouse-like barns and slaughtered in processing plants modeled on Henry Ford’s assembly line. Industrializing the chicken’s life cycle allowed poultry companies such as Tyson Foods to gain unprecedented control over mass animal production. From a central office in Springdale, Ark., Tyson can control what kinds of birds are raised, what they are fed and when they are slaughtered.

Never mind that Thanksgiving is for many the celebration of a relationship between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, one forged in part by the Native Americans’ demonstration of more efficient and successful harvesting methods. To Leonard, that innovative market practices have led to increased market share for certain companies is not an American success story.

Leonard’s idea of American success, as told at the end of the op-ed, is ownership by a small collective, aided in part by the government:

But instead of giving up, Meyerhoeffer and his fellow farmers formed the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative and scraped together more than $2 million, borrowing $8 million more from the USDA. With that, they bought the Pilgrim’s Pride turkey slaughterhouse. The farmers now supply and own the slaughterhouse. Farmers gave themselves the right to fire the plant’s managers if they felt they were mistreated. They formed an advisory committee to ensure that they had a voice in decision-making. In their own small way, they established a new political and economic order in the turkey business.