‘Barons’ author Austin Frerick explains why so few companies control so much of our food

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 3/21/24, Last updated: 3/21/24

In the late 19th century, a few powerful individuals — dubbed “robber barons” by journalists of the time — built monopolies that dominated key industries like steel, rail and meatpacking, squeezing workers for cheap labor while delivering inferior products and services. Now, a century after antitrust regulation diminished the market-distorting power of these original barons, consolidation has once again become a major problem in several industries. Food and agriculture sit at the center of today’s consolidation problem, where just a handful of executives and corporate dynasties exercise outsize control over the prices we see on grocery shelves.

Courtesy of Island Press
Courtesy of Island Press.

In his new book “Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry,” agriculture and antitrust policy expert Austin Frerick charts the story of these modern monopolists and how they leveraged lax regulations and exploiting subsidy programs to gain market share and reshape the grocery industry, hog farming, meatpacking, coffee trading and more. The effects of this consolidation have gone well beyond the kitchen: As a few players have taken control of agriculture, food processing and retail, they’ve left much of the rural U.S. a hollow shell of itself, with few jobs and big environmental problems for the people who remain. These problems are clearly on display in Frerick’s home state, Iowa. As hog baron Jeff Hanson made factory farming the standard in the last few decades, the state’s rich patchwork of small, diversified farms turned into a collection of giant hog barns that generate enough waste to pollute most of the state’s waterways.

We spoke to Frerick about how our modern robber barons got so much power, the broken approach to U.S. food policy and the role of self-enriching politicians, and how we can change the system to bring back competition — for everyone’s benefit.

Often, the story of corporate consolidation is told at a purely systemic level. What inspired you to take the more personal angle and tell the story through these individuals and families?

My first professional job was at the Congressional Research Service. So I think in terms of structures. The original draft of this book was like that, but people need a compelling story. They need narrative. Once you start hearing these details, that Cargill is the richest private company in America, bigger than the Koch brothers, or that the fact that one man has 5 million hogs, it hits a moral bone in you that just doesn’t feel right.

This stuff is overwhelming. The world’s dark right now. You can’t just layer darkness on the people. You gotta offer them hope, and my big takeaway was there’s actually a lot of people trying to make really good, sustainable structural change. It’s really just a few greedy people holding us back, and the beauty of using the “barons” framework is that we’ve dealt with this before in our past. We’ve dealt with the Standard Oil Trust before. These barons are so ridiculous and so morally wrong. There’s a clear bipartisan consensus to do something about it.

Obviously the public cares about fixing this, but there are politicians offering actual solutions and some who are doing the opposite to enrich themselves or their connections. How can we tell who’s actually invested in changing the system for their good versus who’s just perpetuating problems?

The way you can tell is just to look at someone’s track record. You’ve gotta separate the hollow rhetoric from [what they actually did]. Vilsack’s a good example of that: By every metric, he’s failed. I think an undercurrent of this book is the failure of Secretary Vilsack.

There’s a pretty good, easy case to make that he’s probably the worst secretary in the Biden administration. I mean, I’ve never seen a political piñata saying “hit me, hit me,” more than his dealing with the meatpackers as someone who not only was incapable of actually doing anything meaningful, but then actually let the system get worse under his watch. It’s for pure greed and corruption, because he’s a former lobbyist who wants to be a lobbyist again.

It’s truly comical to see. When I read my “slaughter baron” chapter, my anger is not even with the slaughter barons, JBS. They’re cartoonishly corrupt and probably the closest thing we have to a criminal organization as a modern corporation in America, but my anger is with Vilsack. Because he let them get this way, you know? His constant hollow rhetoric and not doing anything meaningful. And they kept pushing the envelope, pushing the boundaries. We have 13-year-olds working in slaughterhouses, and the only trouble JBS gets in is a slap on the wrist.

So going back to your question, look at what they [politicians] have actually done. I mean, I just don’t care about hollow rhetoric anymore. Most Americans don’t care about the rhetoric anymore. People in agriculture have heard it for decades, and they just don’t care what you say until you actually make meaningful reforms.

One of the USDA policies you express skepticism about in the book is stimulating competition by funding small and mid-sized meatpackers rather than taking regulatory action against the big players. Do you think there’s any place for incentive-based approaches to make markets more competitive?

No. There’s no proof of concept there. I mean, I’ve asked USDA this: What are you pulling from here? Why are you wasting taxpayer money? We’ve fixed this [consolidation] before to great success. It didn’t cost taxpayers anything. Why are you wasting this money?

Congratulations to anyone that got a piece of that pie. I wish them the best of luck, but most people in the slaughter industry just expect a lot of them [small meatpackers] to go belly up. Then the big boys buy them for pennies on the dollar. The best-case scenario here is that they’re just another premium product for the Whole Foods shopper. And I think that era of food system reform needs to end, because I don’t really care about making better food for the 1 percent.

The thing that really bothers me with the sideshow here is that you really undermine people’s faith in government. You say you’re helping, but you’re not really doing anything because you’re actually reinforcing the problem. It just breeds more cynicism, which is just not what this moment calls for.

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In the book, you write extensively about the problems with the farm bill. How did it become so dysfunctional, and what would a farm bill that actually promotes fairer markets, supplies healthy food and protects the environment look like?

This current farm bill coalition is rooted in 1960s America, where urban Democrats came together for food assistance with rural voters and made the farm bill. That coalition is not what America is today. The suburbs are missing from that, and the dirty secret is that the ag industry hollowed out its rural voter base.

The modern farm bill is falling apart, and I’m honestly at the point where I think we should just scrap it. I’m only talking the farm titles [subsidies and crop insurance], not the food assistance programs. Take the money that goes into the farm titles and put it into conservation. Right now, the system, as I talk about a lot in my “grain baron” chapter through the story of Cargill, is just designed to overproduce grains at the expense of everything else. You get 60 percent of the premium of crop insurance for grains paid for by the taxpayer. There’s no other insurance like that. It’s too bloated and too rotten.

That’s kind of a conclusion I came to late in writing the book: The second you start playing in the weeds, you’ll see these little reforms pushed by certain members of Congress, like, “Well, maybe we’ll put a cap on this or that,” … this is too much of a massive subsidy for big players — any little thing you try to do to [change] it, they’re gonna win, because the whole ecosystem of how we talk about the farm bill is so captured by industry.

A dynamic you mention in the book that’s really hurt rural America is the way that JBS — and other consolidated players in the food industry — move to areas where they’re the only big employer so they can better manipulate the labor market. But given the industry’s line that they’re “creating jobs,” it can be hard to criticize them. What does a better future for rural economies look like to you?

I think the single best jobs program you could do for rural America is abolish CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations. This current model is so destructive from an environmental standpoint. It also makes a very inferior product. And it’s just an awful job. We’re starting to see research now by scholars of the trauma these workers feel. Not only are you dealing with hauling out dead animals all day, the animals aren’t happy themselves.

I mean, this whole thing is just really, really dark.

The hope here, if you really care about rural revitalization, is to change the model of production. And the silver lining there is that we’re possibly coming up to that moment: Ethanol is collapsing in front of us as cars move to batteries — that’s why industry is scrambling to throw it into airplanes. They see the writing on the wall. The single largest use of corn right now is just burning it in our cars. And with that transition [away from ethanol production], you’re no longer going to need so much of that corn belt land.

Rural America, especially in the Midwest, was rooted in agriculture, and it thrived when it had a decentralized, non-corporatized agricultural production model. My hope is like, Iowa should be the Italy of America. It has the world’s best soil. These little towns have incredible downtowns. It should be like Napa for food tourism, but right now it’s just an extraction colony.

One of the problems you mention in the book is the adoption of the consumer welfare standard, where regulators approve mergers based on company-commissioned studies that claim they won’t raise prices. Do you think the evolving conversation on greedflation and rising corporate profits has shown that to be a failure?

I had this “aha moment” sitting in a business school class at Yale a few years ago:

The goal of a corporate executive is monopoly. Profits are your goal. You don’t want competitive markets. That’s ruthless competition. Your goal is to navigate your corporation to monopoly. So you have this fundamental tension between the interests of the corporation and public interests, where we know that concentrated markets stifle innovation, hurt workers and have all these other negative externalities. And the more concentrated a market gets, they collude and engage in this type of price inflation, price gouging.

I should also say, we just see the tip of the iceberg here of the concentration crisis in America. Peanut butter is my favorite example. We know that one company has a 50 percent market share in peanut butter. It’s probably way higher, because they do a lot of the private label goods. And we only know which ones they do because when recalls happen, we see the names come out. When you have market share like that, you’re not charging competitive prices. You’re going to put a little cream on the top. I don’t need a PhD in econ to say that.

The other thing that’s really hammered home to me is that this cult of “efficiency” is just really rooted in BS — you can get a number to say whatever you want. That’s really what my “coffee baron” chapter is about: this whole fallacy that we can decide how many hogs one man should own or whether companies should merge based on some number in Excel. These are questions we should wrestle with as a democracy, not ones some highly paid, corrupt academic should wrestle with in dark rooms. A lot of them have fancy titles and shape the national conversation on these issues, and they don’t disclose how much money they’re taking [from companies]. I’ve really come to believe that agriculture economics is one of the most corrupted disciplines in America right now.

Consolidation in the food industry has left consumers with worse prices and fewer choices when it comes to their food. Is there anything consumers can do to shift power away from corporations?

There’s certain words I tried to avoid in writing this book, and the phrase “consumers,” to me, is just a weird one. It’s very neoliberal and kind of strips us of our community. There’s this delusion that somehow driving electric SUVs is going to solve the climate crisis.

In my chapter on coffee barons, I talk about JAB Holding Company, this company that, within the last few years, sells more coffee than Starbucks. They own Panera, Stumptown, Keurig and all these other brands that most people don’t realize. What would you do here [as an individual]? How would you solve this?

And it’s such a highly educated, neoliberal response to say, “The problem is education. If we just educate consumers more, if we put calorie counts on the menu, if we put the head brand on the label, people will change their behavior.” To me that’s a very neoliberal mindset; the real way you solve this is deconcentrating the markets. To most people, life is hard right now — they’re working long hours, they don’t have time to know about labels, they just want to put food on their table.

It is up to people in positions of power and people that do this for a profession to put trust back in the system.

What are the changes that would make a difference?

At a low level, I really believe getting local institutional procurement, like local college or local schools, is how you drive supply chains. You talk to any farmer who sells at the farmer’s market, and they’d much rather have an institutional contract because they might get rained out from the farmer’s market, or what have you. Life is so much easier for them, for financial planning and stability, to have that guaranteed contract. It’s also great politics! I mean, what person doesn’t want their kid to have pastured milk? I mean, who wants to feed their kid Brazilian Amazon rainforest beef?

But looking at the bigger picture, stop trying to do piecemeal things and take lessons from the incredible success of the big tech antitrust reform movement. Go for the big structural changes.

Asking for a million-dollar grant on the farm bill is maybe .0001 percent of the budget. It doesn’t matter. They’re giving you that so they can buy you off and maintain the current system that will eventually run you out — and then make the system worse. I think we need to put the farm bill out to pasture, and I’m personally in favor of stripping the USDA for parts. They haven’t shown their ability to regulate the markets, so I would give that authority over to the FTC [Federal Trade Commission].

I try to make this point in my book. There’s never a moment from the past we should idealize in agriculture. It’s rooted in genocide and slavery, and there’s this habit of idealizing it. Let’s just move forward and shift the food system in the post-neoliberal direction that would benefit the 1 in 10 Americans that work in it.

Top photo by graja/Adobe Stock.

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