RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Big Box Meat No Bargain

In 1997, on Jan. 25 to be exact, I ate my last bite of factory-raised meat. My reasons were absolutely selfish -- my neighborhood was stinking from a Cargill hog operation, there were days when we couldn't go outside, and enough was enough. I had to live next to them but I didn't have to support them.

It took a while to find local sources for all the things we eat in this household, so we did without a few things for a couple of years but now it's easy. We raise a few animals ourselves and we rely on neighbors for the others. It's extremely hard for our neighbors to make money raising hogs, turkey, eggs or chicken but, fortunately, as one neighbor gives up another comes into the system with more knowledge and a better plan. A few of them manage to hang on and because there are a number of consumers buying fresh, local meats my county now has three -- count 'em -- three independent pork producers selling directly to the public.

After several years of developing a system that involves shopping with friends, farmers' markets and little stores, I started comparison shopping with the prices at Wal-Mart. I wondered if my small-store shopping habits were costing too much. Ha! My comparisons always showed that it was a close race but I saved money by avoiding Wal-Mart.

This year, when I did my yearly comparison, I was shocked. My friends can raise their prices 25% on their products and I'll still save money by shopping with them. A few things, like brats, ground beef and salami, are still cheaper at Wal-Mart, but all the others were much cheaper at the Farmers' Market or from my neighbors.

Not only that, but the factory meat comes "enhanced" with a salt solution. Beef is "enhanced" with 10% saline solution and pork is "enhanced" with 12% solution. The big guys claim this makes for a more tender, flavorful product, but I'll do my own seasoning, thank you. And what about people with high blood pressure -- aren't they supposed to avoid salt?

The one place where Wal-Mart really undersells everyone is the chicken. Because all the nearby sources have gone out of business, I buy my chickens whole from a youngster we'll call Laura a couple of counties away and I pay $3 a pound. She does all the labor herself, with a great big smile, and I wish her long life. I'll pay whatever Laura asks, happily, just to keep her going.

But Wal-Mart can sell boneless chicken breasts for 88 cents per pound. How's that work? First of all, there's the subsidy system. Then there's what Elanor Starmer of Tufts calls the "implicit" subsidy system.

Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest producer of chicken and a close Arkansas neighbor of Wal-Mart, has benefited by an estimated $1.25 billion in the last ten years from this system. For example, Laura's family raises the grain she feeds to her chickens so she doesn't have to buy it. You'd think that having a family source for grain would save her money, but not so.

Thanks to the system that pays farmer a subsidy to raise grain so he can sell it at a price below his cost for seed, fuel, machinery, fertilizer and labor, Tyson and other corporations can buy feed at less than it costs a farmer to raise it. In this upside-down and unsustainable system, productive land is a liability to the feeder. Starmer estimates that Tyson's feed costs are 13% below the cost of raising your own.

There are other benefits to being the big guy. They can import labor from low-wage countries, ignore fines imposed by EPA and state agencies when the animal factories pollute air and water, and, since the stockholders don't live near the facilities, they can ignore the estimated 14% reduction in property values.

Big corporations transfer worker health problems to the communities where they have their facilities and they transfer the risk of animals sick or dying from crowded conditions to the operators of the facilities. In fact, taxpayers, farmers, labor and neighbors are the main losers in the system that benefits only the corporations.

But here's the hugest mystery: Despite all the breaks, the big guys lose money. In first quarter 2006, Tyson lost money. A whopping $52 million according to their own reports. How can any small business compete with a system that can lose that kind of money and survive? Ain't gonna happen.

Some animal production -- beef, lamb and hogs -- have developed thriving alternative systems to the industry model. The poultry and egg business have a tougher climb. In the last 10 years, two independent chicken butchers in mid-Missouri have started up and quickly gone out of business. After investing around $100,000 each in USDA-approved plants, the brave owners were done in by labor shortage, product shortage and personal exhaustion. There was enough demand, but they simply weren't able to meet it and, in both cases, wore themselves out.

So, consumers, if we want to rebuild this sector of the food system, it's $3-a-pound chicken for all of us. With a huge smile.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2006

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