Book report: 'Meat Racket' noise nothing new (commentary)

Book report: 'Meat Racket' noise nothing new (commentary)

REMEMBER those book reports you had to write in high school? They were painful things. You had to actually read the book and then write something meaningful about it.

It took way too much time out of the average student's play time to be worthwhile, even if you accidentally learned something in the process.

Well, I'm writing a book report, and it is a painful thing, indeed. I actually read the book, and the most painful part is that I'll never be able to unread it. I thought it might (to use an agriculture-related literary term here) "plow some new ground" in the long and checkered history of yellow journalism.

After I had finished reading it, the book reminded me of a field in northern Indiana I visited about 25 years ago. A nearby poultry facility used it to dump a massive amount of chicken poop that it collected from the large number of laying hens housed in buildings across the road — a road, incidentally, that no chicken ever crossed.

The field was seriously polluted, burned out from way too much phosphorous, and it smelled even if you were standing upwind. Not too long afterwards, the feds handed down some much-needed regulations controlling the practice of plowing under the "leavings" of a few-hundred-thousand chickens.

It's too bad that the feds can't hand down some regulations controlling this kind of journalism. The book I read is called The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business. The fish wrap of a dust jacket says it's the work of investigative reporter Christopher Leonard and that it delivers the "first-ever account of how a handful of companies have seized the nation's food supply."

First, the consolidation of the meat and poultry industry has been going on for years, and the publicity about it has been so constant that, for most people, it has become the kind of background noise that comes from living next to O'Hare airport. After a while, you just don't hear those damn jets anymore.

Also, the book definitely isn't the "first-ever account." It doesn't even qualify to be the hundred-thousand-and-first.

But the book is being pushed on an unsuspecting public by none other than author Eric Schlosser, whose dust cover homily reads, "Cruelty, greed and monopoly power — that is what Christopher Leonard has found at the heart of America's meat packing industry."

Those claims have been around ad nauseum at least since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and have been repeated regularly, recently by some guy named Schlosser.

Leonard's book targets cattle and chickens and pigs and corn and laments the "secret takeover" of it all, even though consolidation is one of the most open secrets of modern American business practices — from electronics to autos to entertainment and every other human pursuit.

Why it should come as a surprise that Tyson Foods is operated as a for-profit business and actually makes one seems to be a source of constant annoyance to the author. He knits together well-known business facts with interesting little sad and personal tidbits about those people who fell by the wayside — apocryphal tales of failure that attempt to humanize a changing industry in a zippity-doo-dah, Disney-esque sense but do nothing to expose anything new or startling.

If you want a good read about the industry that really does plow some new ground, try Maureen Ogle's In Meat We Trust. She did some original research, avoided falling into the gratuitously bestselling "exposé" tendencies of Schlosser & Co. and published a book that had something new and interesting to say.

*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.

Volume:86 Issue:08

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