Nicholas Kristoff is an old farm boy who moved from his Oregon roots to the big city so long ago that he often thinks food that doesn't originate at the 21 Club or Per Se comes from the supermarket. He is a New York Times columnist who occasionally writes about food, constantly attacking modern agriculture, always repeating what he's learned from an interesting cabal of very elitist foodies.
He's just written a fan boy piece, “The Unhealthy Meat Market,” promoting the latest bit of yellow journalism, "The Meat Racket," by Christopher Leonard. In it, he quoted or requoted a lot of discredited nonsense. It just begs for parody. My questions are followed by direct quotes from his column.
Q. Nicky, what is Tyson Foods and are they really the most evil organization since SPECTRE. Do we need to revive James Bond to defeat their nefarious schemes?
A. Tyson, one of the nation’s 100 biggest companies, slaughters 135,000 head of cattle a week, along with 391,000 hogs and an astonishing 41 million chickens. Nearly all Americans regularly eat Tyson meat — at home, at McDonalds, at a cafeteria, at a nursing home.
Q. So Tyson feeds a lot of people. Is that what makes them evil?
A. “Even if Tyson did not produce a given piece of meat, the consumer is really only picking between different versions of the same commoditized beef, chicken, and pork that is produced through a system Tyson pioneered,” says Christopher Leonard, a longtime agribusiness journalist, in his new book about Tyson called “The Meat Racket.”
Q. I've read Leonard's book and I checked my list of well-known and even unknown agribusiness journalists. I couldn't find his name anywhere. Does he manage to break new ground with his self-described expose?
A. Leonard’s book argues that a handful of companies, led by Tyson, control our meat industry in ways that raise concerns about the impact on animals and humans alike, while tearing at the fabric of rural America. Many chicken farmers don’t even own the chickens they raise or know what’s in the feed. They just raise the poultry on contract for Tyson, and many struggle to make a living.
Q. And what devastating things does the Tyson hegemony do to the American food basket?
A. Factory farming has plenty of devastating consequences, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that it has benefited our pocketbooks. When President Herbert Hoover dreamed of putting “a chicken in every pot,” chicken was a luxury dish more expensive than beef. In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed for $6.48 a pound in today’s currency, according to the National Chicken Council. By last year, partly because of Tyson, chicken retailed for an average price of $1.57 per pound — much less than beef.
Q. So they've forced us to buy chicken at about one fourth the cost we paid during the great depression? I hate them for that. How did they manage to do it?
A. Costs came down partly because scientific breeding reduced the length of time needed to raise a chicken to slaughter by more than half since 1925, even as a chicken’s weight doubled. The amount of feed required to produce a pound of chicken has also dropped sharply.
Q. (Gasp!) Tell me more.
A. Factory farming endangers our health. Robert Martin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health notes that a farm with 10,000 hogs produces as much fecal waste as a small city with 40,000 people, but the hog operation won’t have a waste treatment plant. Indeed, the hogs in a single county in North Carolina produce half as much waste as all the people in New York City, Martin says.
Another health concern is that antibiotics are routinely fed to animals and birds to help them grow quickly in crowded, dirty conditions. This can lead to antibiotic resistant infections, which strike two million Americans annually (overuse of antibiotics on human patients is also a factor, but four-fifths of antibiotics in America go to farm animals).
Q. So we've established that animals poop but nothing about the rules and regs that require adequate handling. I checked with a leading expert on antibiotic use in animals. It seems that the greatest majority of antibiotics used in animals are not used with humans. Let's move on to things that maybe either of you might be conversant with. Let's talk about the best ideas for replacing factory farming
A. It’s easy to criticize the current model of industrial agriculture, far harder to outline a viable alternative. Going back to the rural structure represented by the inefficient family farm on which I grew up in Oregon isn’t a solution; then we’d be back to $6.48-a-pound chicken.
Thanks for your time, Nicky. I'll keep reading your political commentary which appears regularly in the New York Times.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.