NPR gives quite a treatment to “The Meat Racket,” a new book by former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Chris Leonard on Tyson Foods.

Leonard focuses on the economic machinery that delivers the meat to us, or, as he puts it, “the hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation’s meat supply.” His book aims a spotlight at Tyson Foods, which helped create the modern chicken industry. And it recounts the stories of people, mostly farmers, whom Leonard contends Tyson has chewed up and cast aside since its incorporation in 1947.

Leonard writes about the genius of Don Tyson in growing  his vertically integrated colossus. But he sees victims.


Leonard has no admiration at all, though, for the system of chicken production that Tyson built, which “keeps farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”

The book goes in detail into Tyson’s relationship with its contract growers, a familiar source of criticism. Tyson, naturally, has a different take.

Tyson, in a separate statement, said “we depend on [contract farmers] 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.”

Free-market alternatives to the vertically integrated giants? Leonard has some ideas. NPR sounds skeptical. Me, too. I often buy the organic, lovingly raised pork, beef and chicken products of a neighborhood artisanal butcher. But I know Tyson can fill the center of my dinner plate with everything from a whole broiler to nuggets for pennies on the artisanal dollar. And even then, the big producers are finding their profits squeezed.