'Raw Deal' takes a hard look at the state of the American meat industry
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next interview will be of interest whether you're a meat eater, a vegetarian or a vegan. Dave Davies has this one. Here's Dave.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Meatpacking has been the subject of journalistic exposes dating back more than a hundred years to Upton Sinclair's searing descriptions of slaughterhouses as cruel to animals and dangerous and degrading for workers. Our guest, Forbes staff writer Chloe Sorvino, says meatpacking workers today still suffer from low pay and poor working conditions, but that the American meat industry has other serious, far-reaching problems. She finds that market power in meat processing is concentrated in a handful of powerful, multinational companies and that the industry is dominated by factory farms and huge feedlots, where animals get antibiotics and consume feed grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The industry, she says, pollutes the environment, contributes to climate change and leaves the meat supply chain vulnerable to major disruptions. In a new book, she also explores meat substitutes that are gaining a following and considers whether they have the potential to change the industry and slow global warming. Chloe Sorvino leads coverage of food, drink and agriculture at Forbes. Her new book is "Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, And The Fight For The Future Of Meat." Chloe Sorvino, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHLOE SORVINO: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: So let's talk about some meat substitutes that are gaining some traction in the United States, you know, to give people alternatives to beef and pork. You know, Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are very well-known. I eat them. They deliver a terrific authentic beef taste. Does it seem that these products will get enough market share to have a real impact on climate change and these other issues?
SORVINO: I really felt like I couldn't write about the wealth and power in the meatpacking industry without also talking about the challengers and how they have been trying to take a bite out of big meat. But so far, there's been billions of dollars invested and so little actual sales. The plant-based meat sales right now are still less than 1% of the total meat industry, and that's not the type of scale that's actually going to make any climate difference whatsoever. But we really don't have the time to waste. And before I delved further into the world of alternative proteins, I wanted to address if it actually really could make an environmental difference. And so the alternative milk industry actually does have roughly around 15% of the total milk industry, and so I was using that as a bit of a proxy and figured out if plant-based meat did take a share of around 15% of the total meat industry, it really would be quite significant. It would actually be the equivalent of taking a quarter of all cars off the road in the U.S.
DAVIES: So if they can do as well as milk substitutes have done, it might be meaningful. You know, there's another kind of meat alternative which rests on fungi - right? - mushrooms. And you write that, I have come to see fungi as probably the strongest foundation for meatless meat. What makes you optimistic about it?
SORVINO: I was growing mushrooms in my apartment in the pandemic. And loved my mushroom share. I'm a big mushroom fan. But there is also this third wave of alternative protein startups that have been trying to commercialize how to grow mostly the root stocks of fungi called mycelium. And it's created a line of new products that are starting to come out very slowly but will be emerging more and more, especially in early next year, and they take no pollution for the soil. They're not using any harshly farmed commodities, while at the same time, these products are often not having to use as much processing. Most of the alternative protein products on the market right now are often very ultra-processed, filled with additives and different ingredients. But the mycelium-based products are actually pretty much sliced and then almost use, like, a chicken breast or a slice of bacon. They take far less manipulation to taste like the meat alternatives that folks want them to taste like.
DAVIES: And so where - is it a huge, you know, big kind of airplane-hangar-size room where mycelium are growing and - I mean, what does it look like?
SORVINO: Yes, I toured some of these warehouses, and it was amazing to see just the scale of how big these farms can go. They're often vertical. They're very high up. There's rows and rows of trays where this rootstock has been growing. And the warehouses often take a fair amount of energy, which is one of the bigger environmental sources - very low on water, very low on other types of resources. And they take a lot of heat to make these mushrooms bloom quicker. And then you have all these different trays of mycelium and different types of fungi being taken out and sliced and then eventually put in packages and getting out to the market.
DAVIES: So if you run this big operation on a coal-fired electrical utility, maybe not so good, but if you do it with sustainable energy, it's a real contribution to the environment?
SORVINO: In theory. I mean, there are sustainability tradeoffs with any single type of food, any protein source. And that's why I wanted to talk about mycelium because, while it is a far better option, it's looking like, it isn't without taking up a significant amount of resources. And the founders I spoke to all talk about how they are really relying, at the end of the day, on the government electrifying the grid for their energy source. Few plants right now are using their own solar or alternative energy sources. And, you know, lab-grown meat, cultivated meat also - these plants are taking up huge amounts of energy and also really relying on the government to electrify the grid. But if that happens by 2030 - it remains to be seen - it's another way that this emerging industry is passing the costs down the line to someone else.
DAVIES: You do hear that solar is a lot cheaper than it used to be. We'll see. Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Chloe Sorvino. She's a staff writer at Forbes. Her new book is "Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, And The Fight For The Future Of Meat." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "UNCLE MEAT: MAIN TITLE THEME")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Forbes staff writer Chloe Sorvino, whose new book examines the state of the meat industry, where she finds, after years of mergers, it's dominated by a handful of companies that rely on industrial-scale farms and control large shares of the market. Her new book is "Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, And The Fight For The Future Of Meat."
I want to look at some other efforts to come up with meat substitutes that you write about. There's a startling statistic you have - Americans eat 9 billion chickens a year. I knew it was a lot. That's a lot. A lot of them are fed on corn. You write about a company called Cooks Venture that's working to raise chickens that eat more sustainable plant food. It involves actually breeding the chickens a little differently. I didn't realize, you know, chickens are bred to have certain characteristics that the growers want. What is this idea of these chickens eating different foods and bred differently? You actually tasted some of this stuff, right?
SORVINO: Cooks Venture chicken tastes completely different from the chicken you find at almost any grocery store or restaurant. I really wanted to tell that story because 99% of all chicken in this country comes from just two companies. To hatch a chicken, you need genetics. And more than 50% of the market in the U.S. is controlled by Tyson and a subsidiary they have. And another 50% is owned by a German conglomerate that I write about that's been driving a lot of consolidation, rolling up pretty much every other player aside from Tyson's in the U.S.
And Cooks Venture is trying to create a sustainable, pasture-raised system where these chickens are going out of their houses whenever they want, foraging through the dirt and the forests and even the different streams on this property. And they are only really able to do that and be as athletic and active because they are this different breed that Cooks Venture has been bringing back and may eventually one day start licensing to compete with everything that is out there.
DAVIES: So how is it more environmentally responsible? I mean, it tastes better. That's OK. That's good. And the chickens have less miserable lives. Why is it better for the environment?
SORVINO: I write about one of the pilot projects Cooks Venture has been working on to transition their chicken entirely off corn and soy, which would be huge, to actually consider how to get less reliance on feed. That's another key way to stop climate change, to really stop some of the soil erosion and water impacts that we've been talking about. But they're testing a bunch of different alternatives from sorghum to wheat. They've been working with farmers to be able to do cover-cropped wheat that they're still actually able to harvest without impacting and tilling the soil. And at the same time, then this holistic system that they're building in Arkansas has orchards that they've been rehabilitating. And the chickens then also are spreading their own manure through the soils. And these are very lively grasses, completely different from a massive feedlot chicken operation with thousands and thousands of birds forced into confinement, unable to move.
DAVIES: And can they do it on a cost basis that makes their birds competitive with the stuff that people get in supermarkets?
SORVINO: The birds are competitive right now. I mean, not to say that they're making huge profits yet. Industrial meat still maintains the most profits. But Cooks Venture has been raising a lot of money, and they've been spending a lot of money to try to get their marketing out there, get into different stores. You can find Cooks Venture chickens white labeled as a private label for Trader Joe's, even. They're selling at supermarkets. They're also selling online. It's around $20 a chicken. It's more expensive, but you also are getting more nutrients. You're getting higher omega-3 ratios and the bones you can use for a stock - the goodness that comes out of their bones are unlike any other bones I've seen in a commercial setting.
DAVIES: You write about something else I've never heard of called air meat - air meat. This sounds pretty wild. What's the idea?
SORVINO: Yeah. Lisa Dyson has been pioneering some wild research out in Silicon Valley. Air Protein is her startup, and they have been commercializing research from NASA that was originally from the 1960s that was being looked into so that astronauts could potentially create single-cell protein from the carbon dioxide that they release when they breathe up in space. Essentially, Air Protein is using fermentation to rapidly take these single-cell organisms and slapping on flavor science, doing a bit of food engineering, then creating a chicken breast out of that.
DAVIES: Has this actually been done? Has a chicken breast been created from carbon dioxide in the air?
SORVINO: This is one of the ones I really tried to eat because I was so curious what air meat would taste like. And it's definitely the most secretive I've encountered. There are a few investors who have tried it under lock and key. I, as a rule, as a journalist, don't sign NDAs, so I was not going to be doing that to try it, but I'm really hopeful to soon. They just raised a Series B and are getting way closer towards production.
DAVIES: All right. Well, you have to tell us what that's like on a Whopper. Chloe Sorvino, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SORVINO: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Chloe Sorvino is a Forbes staff writer. She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Her new book is called "Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed And The Fight For The Future Of Meat."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Israel is moving to the far right. Ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties formed a coalition government with recently reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What will this mean for the Palestinians, women, LGBTQ people, Russia's war in Ukraine, Iran, Israel's relationship with the U.S. and even who is defined as Jewish? Our guest will be Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz and author of a biography of Netanyahu. I hope you'll join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND AND KENNY BARRON'S "DR. DO RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.