Christopher Leonard, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business

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AllAboutFood-for-WEB-leonardChristopher Leonard is the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press. His work has appeared in Fortune, Slate, and The New York Times. He is a fellow with The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, DC. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he lives outside Washington, DC.
 

TRANSCRIPTION:

It’s All About Food, Interview with Christopher Leonard

 

Hello everybody. I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Here we are it’s March 3rd 2015. I just looked out my window and it’s snowing! What is that about? It just keeps on snowing. March, in like a lamb and stay tuned. Who knows what’s next? Anyway I’m indoors and I’m glad that I have a place to be that’s dry and warm. We always need to remind ourselves of all the things we’re grateful for, right? And right now I’m glad to be warm and dry. I want to introduce my very special guest today. I’m very excited about this program. I’ve got Christopher Leonard. He’s the author of The Meat Racket, The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. He’s the former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press. His work has appeared in Fortune, Slate and The New York Times. He is a fellow with The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, DC. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he lives outside Washington, DC. Hi Chris, how are you doing today?

Christopher Leonard: I’m doing great, how are you?

Caryn Hartglass: Good. And you’re inside?

Christopher Leonard: I am inside where it’s warm.

Caryn Hartglass: I wanted to say when I first heard your voice, when you called a little while ago, the first thing that came to my mind was: Your voice is exactly what I would expect it to be reading your book and looking at your picture. I don’t know why I thought that but I’ve never thought that before.

Christopher Leonard: I’m glad it matched up.

Caryn Hartglass: It all matches. You sound just right.

Christopher Leonard: Excellent.

Caryn Hartglass: First question for you, Chris other than how are you doing today? How did you decide to write The Meat Racket?

 

Christopher Leonard: I’m doing fine thanks, by the way and thanks for having me on to talk about this. I really appreciate it. It was kind of a gradual process to be honest—how I decided to write this. To kind of really take it back to the beginning, I was a business reporter based in Missouri and then in Arkansas during the late ‘90s and sort of the early aughts, if you want to call them that. I was really fascinated with industrial agriculture with Monsanto and with Tyson Foods then Archer Daniels Midlands and these big companies. I just took every chance I could to report about them.

Caryn Hartglass: Can I just ask you a question here?

Christopher Leonard: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Were you fascinated in a positive way?

Christopher Leonard: It’s so interesting. I mean this, I’m not being glib. It really transcended positive or negative. I’m really fascinated with power. I’ve got to tell you what struck me was how much power these companies have. They operate in small towns on the fringes of our country in these really small towns and yet they’re some of the biggest, richest most powerful corporations in the world. When you look at the meat industry particularly…I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a giant chicken farm, an industrial chicken house. I’m not going to say that was a positive impression to see 50,000 chickens on the ground and the air burns your nose and eyes but I also had a heavy dose of awe with it. Just the size and scale of the system impressed me. I’d say the seeds of this book really came in 2004 when I went to this small town in Arkansas called Waldren. That’s when I really saw how much power a company like Tyson Foods has. When I interviewed these people that raised birds for the company. That is when I really started—look to be straightforward—I felt a sense of real outrage in this town when I saw how the farmers were being treated, when I saw how powerless they were, how they were being exploited. That’s when I really started to dive into this, research it and that’s what led to the book being written.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you wrote it and now we have to get everybody to read it. I want to think that when people read it they’re going to want to do something.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: Do something. We live in an age where a lot of people just sit back and watch because, for one reason or another they’re either too busy or too tired, too poor or too numb or too frustrated but we need to be doing something.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah. I get asked that a lot about, ok what should we do about this? First of all I just want to say my act of doing something was writing this book. What I was trying to do in writing this book was basically give an x-ray of an architecture of power, like give an x-ray image of this power structure so people can really understand what it is, really understand how it works and understand the truth about it. And so I did that and then everybody is like: What should we do about it? How can we handle this? Obviously it’s not my opinion that things are ok right now. We’re in a bad situation. The meat industry in particular is too dominated by too few firms, just a handful of companies have too much power. There’s not an easy prescription to deal with that. It’s not like at the end of my book I can just tell everybody OK go buy this certain kind of meat and everything’s going to be fine. Or go steer your dollars here and it’s going to solve the problem. We’re dealing a very big complicated and powerful system here so it doesn’t lend itself to easy prescriptions. But I really do, as a journalist, believe first of all in the power of knowledge and transparency and at least understanding what the system is. I think it’s a good first step.

Caryn Hartglass: We’ll get back to what we can do later. And I have a few ideas not that I have the answers to all the world’s problems but sometimes I like to think that I do. But I don’t. I want to touch on a number of things that popped out to me in the book and just discuss them a little bit. So the first thing…I had a sick feeling the entire time reading this book just knowing what’s going on in the world. One of the good things in the book is the history to see how it happened. It didn’t happen overnight.

Christopher Leonard: Absolutely.

Caryn Hartglass: So one of the things that is going on is the culpability of our banks and our government in allowing some of this to happen. So there are some chicken farmers and they decide that they want to be a part of the growing machine of Tyson. You describe that and we can talk a little more about that but they need to borrow a lot of money in order to construct the factories to code. They’re under the belief that they are going to be able to make enough money to pay off their mortgage and the banks are a part of this and when they end up not being able to make payments on their mortgage and maybe we could go into a little of the reason why, or just read the book everybody, the banks aren’t that concerned because we’ve got rules where we’re taxed and the banks get paid off.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah. It’s a brilliant system if you’re a bank or a multinational food corporation. At the end of the day the person who foots the bill for these farm failures is the U.S. taxpayer. This is really interesting to me and I’m really glad you’re focusing on it because it’s an important part of the story. I spend the first part of the book talking about how miserably exploited poultry farmers are. As you point out, we’re not talking Mom and Pop farmers here. We’re talking somebody who might borrow two million dollars to build a giant industrial complex of seven chicken houses that are really big warehouses with automatic ventilation systems, automatic feeding systems and yet these farmers operate on such a large scale under contract to companies like Tyson Foods. These folks live paycheck to paycheck. They literally live on the edge of bankruptcy constantly. I can’t tell you how many folks I met who could not afford health insurance. They couldn’t afford basic repairs on their house and yet they’re tending operations that might have $380,000 in cash flow a year. As a business reporter it really begged the question, how in the world can this system be sustainable if these farmers are going out of business so easily? Why is the bank willing to lend money to the next farm? How can the system keep going for ten years?

Caryn Hartglass: And how are they allowed to do that? It’s just obscene.

Christopher Leonard: It is. One of the reasons I wrote this is because it’s so indicative of so much in our economy today. The reason it works is because these companies figured out this kind of loophole. There is this really obscure USDA agency that was created to loan money to farmers to get them started—to help farmers. These days these companies have figured out how to get a loan like that for a factory farm. What happens is when that factory farm goes out of business, taxpayers pick up 90% of the cost of the failed loan. So it’s really a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee for these factory farms. I guess what really, frankly, upset me about it is the fact that the farmer doesn’t see a red penny when they go out of business. They have to declare bankruptcy. It’s the bank that gets bailed out by the taxpayer and then that bank is willing to extend another loan to the next farmer.

Caryn Hartglass: Is everybody as sick as I am hearing this? I’m just so sick hearing this. Ninety percent of taxpayer money repays this bad loan that shouldn’t have been given in the first place. And yet we have government officials that say we shouldn’t be taxed so much.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah, it’s amazing.

Caryn Hartglass: And they’re the ones who are approving this kind of regulation.

Christopher Leonard: And this is one of those fascinating little loopholes or glitches that exists within a giant USDA bureaucracy and is really hard to tease this stuff out and figure out how it works. That’s why it’s been allowed to continue for so long. I do want to point out if we had an honest market that wasn’t distorted by a big tax-back subsidy like this, the bank would have to take an honest look at that loan and say, boy can this farmer really pay this thing off over thirty years? The economics of the chicken business would say no. That might change the whole structure of the industry but these companies as we probably will talk about have lobbyists in Washington that make sure these kind of loopholes remain open to them.

Caryn Hartglass: So this is the next thing that makes me sick. You just said it’s not really economically feasible for these people to borrow all this money and create these farms to grow chickens because that portion of the chicken business is like the least profitable and Tyson knew that when they decided to vertically integrate and scoop up every part of the process except the farmers raising the chickens.

Christopher Leonard: Right. That gets to your point of why the history is so important to understand. Again I started on this because I was really shocked at how mistreated farmers are. I went back and actually interviewed the people that built the system as it exists today—the top lawyer for Tyson Foods who helped actually construct some of the earliest poultry farming contracts. You talk to these people and you realize the system we have today wasn’t handed down from on high. It’s not like it just evolved. People created it. These companies created it in their self-interest. As you point out these people in the poultry industry a long time ago, in the ‘60s, figured out that the farm is the riskiest part of the business and part of the least profitable business so they shifted that onto the books. They created this class of “contract farmer” who will sign a contract and raise birds for Tyson. It was very consciously constructed in this way to the benefit of the company over the farmers.

Caryn Hartglass: The contract farmer is the modern word for serf. We have a contemporary feudal system.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah and you know that sounds kind of like hyperbolic or an exaggeration but if you really look at the dictionary definition of serf as in somebody who tends land at the whim or control of a feudal lord it’s just remarkably similar to what is happening out there in rural America today. You’ve got these farmers who, again, will borrow huge amounts of capital, two million dollars let’s say, build a farm and then they’ll raise animals for a company like Tyson Foods, or in the case of pork for Smithfield Foods, the pork producer. The farmer never owns the animals. The company owns the animals. The company will deliver the animals. The farmer tends the animals for six weeks or so in the case of chickens, and then the company picks them up and the farmer has no control over the feed that is given. The company will deliver the feed. The company determines what kind of medication is given to the birds. The company determines what kind of birds are delivered, how old they are, how old they are going to be when they’re picked up. So the farmer has virtually no control over their operations. And they’re at the whim of the company. Case after case you see these companies can cancel the contract. They hold this over the farmer’s head. They can cancel the contract and leave the farmer with nothing but the debt that they owe. That’s one of the key reasons why these farmers are so reluctant to speak up for themselves.

Caryn Hartglass: They can’t strike. They can’t form unions. They can’t band together and work for equitable pay and equitable rights.

Christopher Leonard: Exactly. The book lays out how in the ’60s, some of the earliest contract farmers did try to get together and form co-ops or grower’s associations and they were put out of business by companies like Tyson Foods and the other poultry firms in business at the time. It was pretty brilliant. The USDA sued Tyson and a handful of other companies and said “you can’t just cancel contracts because these farmers are trying to get together. That violates antitrust laws.” Tyson brilliantly pointed out, “geez antitrust laws were written in the ‘20s before there were poultry companies and they didn’t specifically name poultry companies so therefore those laws don’t apply to us.” And they won that case.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s just unbelievable.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah and I think it’s endemic of these firms always being one step ahead of the regulators. They’re always one step ahead. They’re very smart in how they use the law to their benefit whether it’s for taxes or guaranteed loans or things like this.

Caryn Hartglass: The whole antitrust situation in all industries today—it’s getting scarier and scarier. I remember as a kid learning at school about monopolies and how we were protected against them and how bad they were and yet we’re living in a world of few corporations who control not just our food but practically everything.

Christopher Leonard: Absolutely. That’s one of the sort of backdrops of this story. The reason I wrote about the meat industry is not because it’s some sort of crazy outlier. I feel like it’s really representative of where we are certainly in our food business and then more generally in a lot of other businesses in the US. One of the key reasons for that is that in the 1980’s our federal antitrust authorities totally changed their approach to antitrust law. Basically what they said was as long as you can prove that you’re lowering prices for the consumer we don’t care how big you get. That’s what happened and that kind of theory led to a massive wave of consolidation in the meat industry and the grains industry and retail where you see Walmart and we totally saw a reversal of the competition policies that had been in place since the depression. That’s how we got to be where we are today where four companies make 80% of all the beef in the United States. Two companies make 40% of all the chicken. We really forgot the lessons of a hundred years ago that said when you let too few companies get too much power they use that power. They don’t use it for the benefit of the consumers or producers who would be farmers in this case.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s a word that I’m discovering is more and more evil and that word is “efficiency”. I see it used so often as a reason to do something and I’m learning more and more that the reason to do things goes far more beyond being efficient and in many ways being efficient is not something that we should hold as valuable.

Christopher Leonard: I certainly think in this case the efficiency argument ties in to that argument of delivering lower consumer prices which kind of makes sense I guess but, again, we have to remember that the structure of an industry matters. It’s better to have thirty companies competing than two companies competing. In the name of efficiency and lower prices we sort of turned our back on that truth and now we’re sort of reaping what we sowed with that decision. In the case of Tyson what we’re seeing is that the consolidation is really hurting farmers that raise the animals and it’s not benefiting consumers any more. The companies are so big they can just unilaterally cut supplies and that keeps prices higher and we’re seeing all sorts of negative consequences from it.

Caryn Hartglass: I just want to detour a minute on some other topics related to your book. You mentioned early on I think when you were talking about Johnny Tyson being a devout Christian. One of the things that he did was to place clergy in slaughterhouses.

Christopher Leonard: That’s right.

Caryn Hartglass: I was fascinated by this concept. You have to understand I’m a vegan. I don’t eat meat primarily for ethical reasons and when I see religion kind of mixed in with all of this—what I think is evil on so many levels for animals, for people, for the environment—what was that? Was that some kind of mea culpa or something?

Christopher Leonard: I am only a journalist. I’m not a psychologist and I can’t tell you. It’s a fascinating story. This company Tyson Foods which is at the center of the book because I think it really is emblematic of what’s going on in the business today. It started in 1929 by a guy named John Tyson who was really smart. He died in 1967 and his son Don took over the company. Don Tyson took this company from a small, mid-sized firm in Arkansas to become the world’s biggest meat company. Don Tyson was an incredible businessperson. So then Don has a son who he names after his father, somewhat confusingly, and that’s John Tyson who you’re talking about now. John Tyson, the son, became CEO in the 1990’s and really for whatever reason he seemed fixated on improving the name Tyson. He wanted Tyson to become a household name. He wanted the brand to be really well recognized and really respected. He wanted the company to be seen as very ethical. As you said, he was a devout Christian and pushed values like that in the workplace. I don’t know what was at the root of that. It ultimately, as a business strategy, did not work and some of the old timers who were around Don actually kind of formed a coup of sorts and John was pushed out of the CEO role for a variety of reasons. Part of it was these guys, and I’m sorry to say this was Arkansas and they were all guys in the corporate suite, they felt that John was focusing too much on some of this image stuff and not enough on the business. That’s why he was forced out.

Caryn Hartglass: I was just kind of tickled when I read that he put clergy in slaughterhouses. It’s just…there is no word for it. Then another little story just on the whole ethics line is you mentioned Chuck Wirtz who is one of these independent farmers raising hogs and, classic story I’ve heard it so many times, he raised a pig. He called it Pinky. He loved this pig, got to know it. Pigs are smarter than dogs. They are really delightful to be with. And then he faced his fate where it had to be slaughtered and he ultimately got numb and became a big hog farmer.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah, as I point out, Pinky was the last pig that he ever named. He didn’t name one after that. This issue is a hard one for me. I think Chuck Wirtz is a really fantastic person. There are so many qualities about him that were so kind and generous to me and Chuck is very comfortable in his moral decision to raise hogs for food. He is also a devout Christian. We talked a lot about this when we were walking through these factory hog barns that he operates. He told me his belief is that God put humans on the earth and then God put pigs on the earth for us to eat and that’s why pigs are here. I suppose within that moral framework it justifies how pigs are treated and our consumption of them. I’m not as easy with how pigs are raised today. I don’t mean to criticize hog farmers but I don’t think it’s appropriate how tightly confined the animals are and the waste issues associated with that. Again, it’s one of these things where you look at the history…the reason hogs are raised in factory hog barns is really just because it fit a business plan. It’s not like some scientist genius sat down and said this is the best way to raise hogs. It’s because some guys in a business unit said “hey, if we raise hogs the same way we raise chickens we could make a ton of money and take over the hog business.” That’s exactly what they did. Now we’re kind of grappling with the long-term consequences of that and it’s not all ok. I think that there’s a lot of room for discussion in terms of how appropriate it is to raise hogs the way we do today.

Caryn Hartglass: Your book comes all the way to present time. You talked a little bit about Obama and how he appeared to be somewhat of a potential savior for the farmers. He seemed to listen and be interested and committed to changing farm policy and then discovered along with Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, that it wasn’t an easy thing and practically impossible to do.

Christopher Leonard: Yes. That was an amazing story to me. You kind of forget Obama, his roots politically really went back to that Iowa caucus. That’s when he became a legitimate figure on the national stage—when he won that caucus when he was running for president in 2008. These people told me when Obama was campaigning in Iowa he was really running to the left of Hillary Clinton. Of course Hillary Clinton has long and deep ties with Tyson Foods and agribusiness firms in Arkansas and also with Walmart and Obama ran to the left of that. When Obama got into office he really put into place a team of officials in USDA who seemed poised to enact real reforms in agriculture. I think in the final analysis they were just totally unprepared for the pushback they faced from the meat industry in particular and the lobbying and public relations efforts and this really ambitious reform agenda. I watched it as an AP reporter. It just got dismantled in the year 2010 and 2011. We can talk specifically about what they wanted to do but suffice it to say everyone involved except for Tom Vilsak, has left USDA and this reform effort which focused on anti-trust issues was totally beaten back and dismantled.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s important to talk about because when I think about how we’re going to make change and make change for the better there’s a number of things we can do. We can do things in our own personal life with our own lifestyle, with our own purchases, vote with your dollar, things like that but it’s so powerful now in our system that we need more than that. We need the government on our side and they’re not. I don’t even know how much…it’s just so complicated… Are congresspeople really aware of what’s going on? Have they been so overwhelmed with information from these high-powered lobbyists? Are they just interested in raising enough money so that they can get re-elected? Does anybody care? Does anybody really know what’s going on?

Christopher Leonard: OK. So here’s my take on this one issue that I reported. I’m just having a hard time figuring out where to start on that. What I would say is there were certainly people in the USDA who knew what was going on. Actually the current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak knew what was going on. Let’s just look at the poultry industry. This is an industry just rife with stories of abuse that have been laid out and litigation and enforcement actions. They held a series of workshops and I watched while people got up and testified about rampant abuse. These people knew what was going on. They actually prescribed some legislation that would do something about it. I’d like to talk a little bit about why federal government is so important here. When you have a situation of monopoly power the free market is essentially unable to fix the problem because a few firms have gotten so much control of the market that supply and demand don’t really work to push the price around like they should in the competitive market. What you need and what history has shown is in the past when we’ve had monopolies like Standard Oil, the federal government is the entity with enough power to come in and enforce anti-trust laws. And that’s what Obama was trying to do. Now why did it fail? I don’t think it’s because regulators or politicians didn’t know what was going on. When the rubber really hit the road they had the meat industry in their face every single day. They did not have the public interest lobby if you will or people representing farmers or people representing consumers in their face every day. They certainly didn’t have farmers’ groups spending ten million dollars a year in lobbying to support them. So you have an industry opposition that was very well funded, very targeted and beat back reforms. I think that that’s what happens in cases like this time and again is when you have a concentrated interest that can perform a lot better on Capitol Hill than a defuse interest like what’s good for society? What’s good for everybody?

Caryn Hartglass: Well. Yeah.

Christopher Leonard: So how’s that for an upper on this wonderful warm day? OK, so that’s a total downer.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, total downer, but…

Caryn Hartglass: What’s the good news?

Christopher Leonard: Here’s the good news. None of this stuff is rocket science. A hundred years ago we found ourselves in an almost identical position in the meat industry where four companies ran the game table. They totally exploited farmers. They overcharged consumers. Slaughterhouses weren’t as safe as they should be. It took a lot of time, it took at least twenty years of effort but finally the public interest won and we passed food safety regulations, we passed anti-trust laws and it fixed the problem. So a large public movement fixed the problem a hundred years ago culminating on the anti-trust front with the Packers and Stockyards Act passed in 1921. So it’s totally possible. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work but it has happened before and this problem has been fixed in our country very effectively before. I would argue it was fixed certainly from World War II until roughly 1985, give or take, so if it can be done once it can certainly be done again.

Caryn Hartglass: I want to believe that. What’s odd in this world of so much information is there’s so much people don’t know.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah. It’s amazing as a journalist…at the Associated Press where I was working before I was drowning, the world is drowning in information but there are these stories out there that are hard to get, they’re complicated…in the case of the meat industry you have to drive out to what a New York reporter might consider to be the middle of nowhere and report on it. Those stories are going untold every day while you have this massive churn of information, hoeing the same rows, again and again and again, going over the same ground just over and over, sort of insular conversation. It’s a paradox where we’re drowning in information and starving for insight. I don’t know how you fix that really.

Caryn Hartglass: I have another question for you. Are you a meat eater?

Christopher Leonard: Yeah. Sorry.

Caryn Hartglass: You mention in your book, the only place that I saw the “v” word mentioned on page 312, “the only way to avoid them (meaning Tyson) is to become vegetarian.”

Christopher Leonard: Yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.

Christopher Leonard: Tyson Foods is effectively unboycottable for meat eaters. If you eat meat you’re going to eat Tyson food or food that’s produced by a company just like it. Really the only way to boycott it is to be a vegetarian.

Caryn Hartglass: And that’s my message. You know my father has a saying, “if you can’t solve the problem, eliminate the problem.” Makes a lot of sense to me in this instance. For me, my motivation has always been about the animals which you really don’t talk about in this book. To me that’s like the big smelly whale in the room or the big elephant in the room. There’s so many ugly levels about this story to begin even with just taking out the animals. This is a heart-wrenching story of people being exploited.

Christopher Leonard: Yeah it is. I made a specific choice. I didn’t write about the exploitation of illegal immigrants in the slaughterhouse that much. I didn’t write that much about the rampant damage to the environment, waterways being one of the biggest ones, air pollution from hog farms. I didn’t write about animal welfare issues in depth because I did feel like that stuff has been well-covered and I wanted to…my primary interest here is money and power and I wanted to write about the business structures as they exist and how they came to be which I think explains why you’re seeing all these other side effects and impacts. I think the environmental impact is a symptom of the business plan, as is the way workers in the slaughterhouses are treated, as is the way the animals are treated. I don’t know do you want me to defend meat eating? I find myself in that position a lot.

Caryn Hartglass: You have a defense for meat eating?

Christopher Leonard: No, I guess I don’t. Out on the road talking about this a lot of people came down hard on me, justifiably, for why in the world would you eat meat after documenting what you documented? I will say I buy most of my meat from a local farmer who I know and who I can talk to and whose farm I can visit. That’s most of the meat I buy although I still eat meat when I go to restaurants which presumably is produced by a company like Tyson. I really equate the situation from my perspective…the problems I’m writing about are similar to the problems of Standard Oil, the big monopoly of a hundred years ago, that had so much control over the market. I don’t think that the response to Standard Oil was to quit using oil. It was to break up the company and to take kind of a public policy approach to it. That’s a similar thing I have with meat. The ethical and moral dimension of killing and eating an animal I don’t have like a book-length defense of it but I still do it. I was raised that way I guess and I still think it can be part of a healthy system. It just doesn’t have to be as out of control as it is today. I’m going to guess I did not persuade or sway you one iota with that.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, what I believe and I’ve said this many times is that I think when we allow ourselves to think it’s ok to kill an animal for food that opens a big door for all kinds of exploitation. When we numb ourselves to appreciating other living animals and their skills and abilities and talent and their right to live their lives the way they want to live it, when we allow ourselves to exploit that it opens the door to exploiting not only non-human animals but human animals. I connect those dots and I don’t see any difference. When we go to this industrial version where the animals are confined and treated horribly, living in excrement and filth, and separated….I mean it’s just a disaster…Why not treat the workers horribly as well? Who cares? Let’s just make a lot of money.

Christopher Leonard: Well, you know you really have a point. As you’re saying that it reminds me of this image I’ll never forget. I’ve seen everything in this system from slaughter to everything that is involved but one of the things that really stuck out is when they deliver the baby chicks to a farm. You’ve got this giant warehouse that’s all opened up and empty and ready for the birds and a big truck pulls up and the whole truck is full of these plastic trays full of baby chicks. These guys in rubber boots get out and they start grabbing these trays and they walk ‘em in and just flip ‘em over, dump the load of baby chicks onto the ground. Like, whump, they all hit the ground. They do that hundreds of times. It’s so mechanical. So kind of striking as a city boy like me when you see it for the first time. You really realize the living creatures in this system are just factory widgets. That’s all they are. That’s what they’ve been reduced to completely. I do think that that permeates the whole system. Once you start thinking of life as a factory widget it can justify all kinds of other actions where really the living element, the human element, can get lost in the equation.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. All right Chris, just one last question: You’re writing a new book? What are you working on?

Christopher Leonard: I’m writing a book, a profile of Koch Industries which is an industrial conglomerate out of Wichita, Kansas. It’s K-O-C-H, not Coca Cola. That’s just a really, really fascinating company. It’s very, very diversified. It’s involved in all these different sectors of our economy. It’s also very, very large and it’s private. One of the things that’s fascinating me so much about it right now is sort of the free market philosophy that’s embedded in the firm which I think is really highlighting a debate in our country today about what kind of capitalism we’re going to have. It’s really interesting.

Caryn Hartglass: Good. I look forward to reading that one.

Christopher Leonard: I look forward to finishing writing it.

Caryn Hartglass: I don’t envy that position. Thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food. I’m so glad you wrote this book The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Now everybody read it.

Christopher Leonard: Thanks a lot for the time. I appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Take care and remember eat your vegetables, okay?

Christopher Leonard: All right.

Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly 3/20/2015

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