A new cattle drug called Zilmax is being widely used in the industrial feedlots where most of America’s beef comes from, but not because it produces a better sirloin. In fact, it has been shown to make steak less flavorful and juicy than beef from untreated cattle. Many feedlot owners, big meatpackers, and at least one prominent industry group resisted the drug, worrying that the beef industry would turn off consumers if it started churning out lower-quality steaks.
So what accounts for the sudden popularity of Zilmax?
Turkey is America’s most political meat. Every Thanksgiving, a roasted turkey anchors the meal at which we pay homage to the Pilgrims and give thanks for our country’s prosperity and freedom. The president pardons a bird in the Rose Garden. And Ben Franklin even compared the turkey favorably to the bald eagle in a letter to his daughter: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . a Bird of Courage.”
The turkey tells a story about our nation. But today, the story of turkey in America has seen independence replaced by servitude, and open markets by opaque contracts. If the Pilgrims had seen this coming when they sat down for the first Thanksgiving, they would have lost their appetites.
At the end of last month, China’s biggest meat producer revealed its plans to buy Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. In doing so, Shuanghui International Holdings is poised to take over more than one-quarter of the entire U.S. pork industry in one fell swoop.
To understand what the Shuanghui deal means for Americans, it is critical to understand what Smithfield is, and how it came to be the world’s biggest pork producer. Smithfield isn’t just a big pork company; it’s an entirely new kind of pork company, one that has transformed what it means to be a hog farmer.
Today, most chicken farmers are growing their animals on contract for huge meatpackers, a system that some farmers call “worse than sharecropping.” The Obama Administration promised to investigate how concentration in the chicken industry was negatively impacting farmers. But then, mysteriously, their investigation disappeared. What happened?