Cooped: How Contracted Chicken Markets Affect Farmers and Consumers

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Grocery stores are deceptive: shelves and aisles are lined with products bearing a plurality of names embossed on the packaging. It gives the appearance of thriving competition, but when a person climbs the ownership ladder, well-known brand names sit at the top. Phil Howard, a professor at Michigan State University, has created an increasingly complex, intertwined map to show the declining levels of competition in the food industry. General Mills, for example, owns Larabar, Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen, Immaculate Baking, and Food Should Taste Good — they’re all organic brands, and all were acquired by one of the largest food processors in the United States.

Processed and organic foods are not the only sectors that are contracting. Meat is, too. This is the subject of Christopher Leonard’s book, The Meat Racket. Leonard focuses specifically on Tyson, a company that occasionally puts its logo directly on grocery store products but is a massive chicken supplier, whether consumers realize it or not.

Don Tyson understood that chicken was going to transition from a “luxury” item reserved for speciality occasions, Leonard explained in an interview with NPR. The chicken market was volatile in the mid-1900s, but the Tysons sought stabilization by keeping costs down. Over time, Tyson created its contract farming system: farmers are supplied with chickens and feed after borrowing hundreds of thousands or millions from their local banks to build industrial chicken farms. On those farms, they must grow the Tyson-provided chickens to Tyson’s standards.

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