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The industrialization of the turkey farm

Turkey is America’s most political meat. Every Thanksgiving, a roasted turkey anchors the meal at which we pay homage to the Pilgrims and give thanks for our country’s prosperity and freedom. The president pardons a bird in the Rose Garden. And Ben Franklin even compared the turkey favorably to the bald eagle in a letter to his daughter: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America ... a Bird of Courage.”

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. Today, just three companies produce nearly half the chicken in the United States, according to a market breakdown provided by Tyson Foods. Four companies make about 84 percent of our beef, and four companies produce 64 percent of our pork, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The industry is effectively divvied up between four big meatpackers: Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and Smithfield Foods.

You don’t have to be a Pilgrim to know that unchecked power rarely goes unused. The days of falling prices are gone. Meat prices jumped more than 7 percent in 2011 and more than 3 percent last year, and the USDA estimates that prices are continuing to rise steadily and could increase as much as 3.5 percent next year. Consumers pay more, farmers earn less, and companies in the middle reap a windfall from the difference.

The takeover of America’s meat industry began with its less-prestigious cousin, the chicken. Starting in the 1940s, chickens were removed from America’s farms and 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.

Even with rising prices, poultry farmers are living on the edge of bankruptcy. I sat in the living rooms of farmers who were working for free because poultry companies didn’t pay them enough to cover the cost of farming. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are people willing to make a different world, even within the confines of the modern meat oligarchy.

Back in 2004, Sonny Meyerhoeffer was a turkey farmer near Hinton, Va., laboring under a contract that gave him little autonomy. The poultry company he worked for was called, yes, Pilgrim’s Pride. When the company canceled the contract of he and his neighbors, they formed the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative and scraped together more than $2 million, borrowing $8 million more from the USDA. The farmers now supply and own the slaughterhouse.

If other pilgrims follow Meyerhoeffer’s example, it could inject competition into the meat business and give farmers more freedom. And that’s something to which we should also raise a cup around this year’s Thanksgiving table.

Christopher Leonard, a former national business reporter with The Associated Press, is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business.”

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