Schlosser describes his first meeting with Hank, a rancher in Colorado Springs, who takes Schlosser on a tour of his property. The ranch lies “twenty miles south of town,” and near some of the new developments that have sprung up amid the natural beauty of the Front Range. Hank explains to Schlosser some of his “land management” plans, which include taking into account the “grazing patterns” of buffalo and antelope, who have “lived in the area for millennia.” Hank notes the sharp contrast between this method of land management and the artificial and environmentally-unfriendly housing developments that continue to choke the landscape.
Hank, like many of the characters in the book, will be important for Schlosser for two reasons. First, clearly Schlosser finds Hank to be engaging: a family man with a real concern for the land, and with a desire to make a profit without making a killing—the prototype of a small-business owner. Schlosser also believes that Hank is a symbol of something that no longer exists—the honest broker, the “straight shooter.” In this way, Hank hearkens back to the West of the past, before the rise of franchises, conglomerates, and suburban subdivisions.
Schlosser describes the arc of the meatpacking business over the course of the last century. At first, around the turn of the 20th century, cattle production, like tobacco and other industries, was consolidated into a nearly nationwide “trust,” a means of creating legal monopolies to control prices and keep profits for business owners high. Although the Sherman Antitrust Act had been passed by Congress in 1890, it took decades for the federal government to dismantle the beef industry’s trust, and encourage open competition among ranchers, which improved their businesses and kept prices lower. This marketplace lasted for about fifty years in the middle of the 20th century.
Schlosser also notes, here as elsewhere, that the changes that have allowed conglomerates to consolidate their influence in the meat and poultry industries were not always possible. In other words: the deregulation of major industries in the US, spearheaded by Republicans in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was not an inevitable trend—it was a direct rebuke of more populist policies that had defended consumer rights and small businesses, in the middle of the 20th century.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, however, philosophical changes at the federal level—which became enveloped by the term “deregulation,” and were espoused mostly by Republicans—enabled large agricultural and food businesses (agribusinesses) to consolidate once again. Small ranchers now had relatively few places where they could sell their beef—their profits shrank, those of the agribusinesses rose, and the beef marketplace became far more difficult for ranchers, because it was less competitive. Meatpacking agribusinesses now put ranchers like Hank in a very tough position—making them wonder whether ranching is still possible, or profitable, in the US.
What Schlosser implies here is that deregulation, or the primacy placed on a “competitive” and “free” market, is not always the system that ensures the best product, or the highest consumer satisfaction—or even the highest profits. Because, in industries like meatpacking, technological advances and the consolidation of many firms into a few behemoths has actually made profit margins quite small—companies have to sell enormous quantities of meat and poultry to make money.
Schlosser notes that this consolidation in beef mimics that which happened in the middle and end of the 20th century in the chicken industry—which was defined, in particular, by the invention of a single, ready-to-eat finger food, the chicken nugget. Fred Turner, the chairman of McDonald’s in 1979, asked suppliers to make a bite-sized, fried chicken bit, and suppliers obliged—in 1983, McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget to great fanfare, “changing not only the American diet but also its system for raising and processing poultry.” A vast majority of chickens in the US, after the nugget, were sold not whole but in parts to suppliers, who ground up the flesh to make the fried morsels.
The chicken nugget is another example of a so-called “development” in the production of chicken, one that has, in the longer run, made the consumption of chicken more common but less healthy, more in demand at places like McDonald’s but less profitable for the producer. Chicken nuggets are almost “too” easy to make for the poultry companies—they can be churned out almost endlessly, which means that the individual value of a nugget is quite low—and this devalues chicken prices overall, making for lower profits for those same agribusinesses.
Schlosser shifts back to the meatpacking industry, and notes that other changes have occurred in the past 30 or so years: cattle are now fed hormones and are thus much larger than in the past, and a system called “captive supplies” is used by meatpackers and slaughterhouses—a way of managing the number of cattle slaughtered at any one time, to keep prices steady. This system makes it extremely difficult, however, for ranchers to make a profit per head of cattle, and though ranchers have sued large meatpackers arguing that these agribusinesses have “fixed” the market in order to ensure their own profits, few rancher lawsuits have been successful. Meatpackers, for their part, say they are trying to save the beef industry, since overall meat consumption in the US has gone down since the 1970s, matched with an increase in the consumption of chicken.
Interestingly—and Schlosser takes pains to point this out—meatpacking companies are all for competition and free markets when they believe those markets will suit them—or when they believe they are being taxed unfairly by the federal government. But when controls on prices or supplies would be favorable for them, as meatpacking companies claim that “captive supplies” are, then the philosophy of free markets is immediately swapped for a controlled, managed economy. The only difference: meatpacking companies want to collude to set these prices without government interference. Although Schlosser doesn’t define it as such, this is the behavior of a cartel—an industry that sets its own prices and stocks.
Schlosser closes the chapter by noting the impact of disruption in the ranching economy. Colorado, he states, is losing its “ranching and cowboy culture,” and far more ranches are now owned by gentleman farmers, who look over the land as a conservation project—which is good for the land—but ultimately bad for the non-gentleman farmers who have no other source of income, and who farm not as a retirement practice but as a means of feeding a family. In closing the chapter, Schlosser writes that Hank, the rancher whom he interviewed at the beginning of the chapter, wound up taking his own life, in part because of his difficulty in maintaining his ranch in the face of ongoing development outside Colorado Springs. Although Schlosser does not argue that Hank’s death is entirely attributable to changes in the beef industry, he does write that cattle ranchers have a suicide rate that “is now about three times higher than the national average.”
Hank’s death clearly comes as an enormous shock to Schlosser, because he has gotten to know Hank, because he respects Hank, and because Hank and his family are, in many ways, emblems of the kind of self-reliant “Westernness” that Schlosser lionizes in the book. But Schlosser uses the statistics on farmer and rancher suicide to show that Hank is hardly an exception. Schlosser notes that few people talk about the enormous pressures placed on farming families in the United States. But because interest groups protecting farmers have little clout at the federal level, compared with interests for the fast-food companies, the issue of farmer welfare and suicide is rarely broached in national conversation.