Tyson’s Control of Chicken Farmers Borders on Feudal

Thursday, April 17, 2014
Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods

Raising chickens for Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest supplier, is not unlike being a serf from the Middle Ages.


Christopher Leonard, author of the book The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, delved into Tyson’s corporatized world for growing and selling chickens. That world is almost beyond one-sided, according to Leonard, as Tyson dominates its relationship with farmers who agree to raise chickens for the company’s vast food-producing empire.


“The power arrangement is set by Tyson, and the farmer learns the rules quickly enough, whatever the documents might say. Vertical integration gives companies like Tyson the kind of power that feudal lords once held,” according to Leonard’s book excerpted in The Week.


Tyson farmers own their land, but not the chickens they raise for the corporation. The company also owns the feed, which is specially designed at a Tyson plant, that’s given to the birds. The cost of the feed is later deducted from any profits the farmer earns from Tyson.


Furthermore, Tyson controls if and when sick chickens are given medicine, based on the recommendations of veterinarians employed by the company.


If something goes horribly wrong on a farm, like it did for Jerry and Kanita Yandell, it’s the farmers who bear the financial burden. The couple raised chickens on their farm in Waldron, Arkansas, the state where Tyson has its corporate headquarters.


In 2003, their chickens began getting sick. The birds turned into “soft, purple balloons,” their limbs easily coming apart from the bodies when picked up, Leonard described.

“The sickness wiped out the birds,” he wrote, “And the dead birds wiped out” the Yandells, who took on $260,000 in debt to set up their chicken-raising operation.


Tyson officials dressed in biohazard suits went out to the farm to collect the carcasses. But they didn’t inform the Yandells what had caused the die-off.


According to Leonard, Tyson has contracted out the job of raising chickens because it’s the riskiest part of the industry. The company’s policies don’t make it any easier on farmers. Tyson pays farmers via a “tournament,” in which they are paid based on their relative performance, measured by things like pounds of chicken delivered per week. In the tournament, those at the top earn at the expense of those at the bottom, who earn so little that they will be driven into bankruptcy if their rankings don’t improve.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Ugly Economics of Chicken (by Christopher Leonard, The Week)

Book Review: ‘The Meat Racket’ by Christopher Leonard (by Bethany McLean, Washington Post)

Billions of Dollars in Federal Contracts Go to Violators of Labor Laws (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Tyson Foods Paid Penalty for Bribery, but No Executives Charged (As Usual) (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


Sarah Beyer 9 years ago
What about Perdue raised chicken?

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