Muckraking Mountains of Manure: On Austin Frerick’s “Barons”

By Devin Thomas O’SheaApril 29, 2024

Muckraking Mountains of Manure: On Austin Frerick’s “Barons”

Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry by Austin Frerick

FED UP WITH Starbucks union-busting, you visit the supermarket to search for a new coffee blend. Facing a wall of options, you note the sophisticated authenticity of Peet’s, the mellow notes of Stumptown, the woody adventurousness of Green Mountain Coffee. The bags are all lit by that grocery store fluorescence, soundtracked by Muzak, and owned by the same company, JAB Holdings.

According to Austin Frerick’s new book Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, the reclusive family who owns JAB is hiding a dark past. Rumor has it that when Reimann family members turn 18, they “sign a pledge not to show their face in public, which is why no photos accompany their names in the annual Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people.” Meanwhile, JAB has swallowed up an extensive list of coffee chains and bakeries, including Caribou Coffee, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Krispy Kreme, Insomnia Cookies, and (my favorite) Panera Bread.

All seven food barons profiled in Frerick’s book are careful to manage their public image—often cultivating false visions of family farmers with down-home ethics, all while living in mansions and flying by private jets. As Frerick explains, what they are trying to hide is the same darkness as IG Farben, the infamous German chemical conglomerate. JAB Holdings was previously in the chemical business, during which time they enthusiastically helped the Nazis commit genocide. Albert Reimann Sr. wrote a fan letter to Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust, describing his clan as “unconditional followers of the race theory” and JAB as “a purely Aryan family business.”

The Reimanns joined the Nazi bandwagon as early as 1923, with Reimann Sr. helping to “orchestrate the Aryanization, expropriation and expulsion of Jewish businesses.” JAB facilities used forced labor (as did the Reimann home), and female workers were “forced to stand at attention naked outside their barracks, and those who refused risked sexual abuse.” It was in this environment that Albert Reimann Jr. conducted an affair with a half-Jewish employee, Emilie Landecker, whose father was sent to the death camps in 1942. She bore him three children, two of whom now have stakes in JAB Holding Company.

The Nazi past of this Luxembourg-based company only came to light in 2018; the Reimanns have been “grappling” with the implications ever since (i.e., performing various forms of public relations penance). But they are only the third in Frerick’s list of seven food barons who have been allowed to run wild since the 1980s, cornering American and international markets. From heartland granaries to slaughterhouses, from the dairy farm to the strawberry patch, each chapter of Barons is a surreal tour through a food industry captured by the largely unseen forces that today call the shots regarding American food.

A recurrent theme of Frerick’s book is the poisonous architecture of these businesses. JAB, Driscoll Foods, Cargill—none of them grow anything. They do not make things; they own things. They are umbrella corporations with the sole goal of monopolistic domination: they control hundreds of subsidiary contractors to which they offshore responsibility, and from which they extract profits. And this contractor system results in the United States’ deadly, abusive, illogical, and largely invisible crisis of labor conditions—which underlines another theme of Barons: our worrying historical parallels with the Gilded Age.

“I believe that we are living in a parallel moment when a few titans have the power to shape industries,” Frerick writes. “Although monopolies are common across the economy, there are few sectors more consolidated than the American food system.” All the Gilded Age hallmarks are there—for example, the “Field of Dreams” model (“If you build it, they will come”) is a nice way of describing how industrial slaughterhouses create their own company towns by moving to the middle of nowhere, forcing the cheapest and most desperate labor to follow. Like coal-mining towns from the turn of the 20th century, our modern industrial slaughterhouses use child labor, and Frerick argues that health and safety conditions are worse than those explored by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (1905)—a reference that positions Barons in the wider American legacy of muckraking journalism.

These monopolistic industries prop up right-wing politicians frothing at the mouth for a border wall while at the same time exploiting undocumented workers: vulnerable immigrant populations work in these slaughterhouse towns without any path to citizenship. The owners of these food empires are all extremely politically conservative, and usually heedless of the social and environmental consequences of their policies. In the case of Driscoll, the company busts agricultural unions, preys upon cheap labor, and depletes Mexican aquifers, forming a feedback loop of parasitism and decay.

Another worrying through line in Barons is the cost to the environment. Humanity can no longer afford to let off methane at the present industrial scale, and yet, in the case of dairy barons Mike and Sue McCloskey, methane-producing concentrations of cow shit are a big part of the business. Scamming the government for subsidies is the other part. All of Frerick’s barons owe their success to deregulation, but the McCloskey dairy empire was built by devouring small farms, using a massive, inhumane warehousing model. Even in the face of legislation seeking to protect family farms in Frerick’s home state of Iowa, the McCloskeys’ industrialized operation has leveraged its political influence to protect gigantic warehouses packed with suffering dairy cows that never see the sun and are milked until they’re ready for slaughter.

These operations produce an enormous amount of concentrated manure—mountains of fecal matter that need to be disposed of, and which turn out to be quite dangerous. Frerick discovered an unreported incident at Fair Oaks, the “Disneyland” of dairy, from January 2021. A 47-year-old Honduran man “had been working a twelve-hour shift near manure equipment when his clothing got caught in the machinery. He was pulled in and died from asphyxiation.” Similarly, during the pandemic, some of the warehouses of Iowa Select Farms, owned by Jeff and Deb Hansen (dubbed “the Hog Barons” by Frerick), lost ventilation, and hundreds of pigs died of asphyxiation from their own concentrated air. Meanwhile, those who work on the fast-moving kill line for JBS Foods (Frerick’s “Slaughter Barons”) butcher so much pig brain that it becomes aerosolized, leading to respiratory illnesses.

Despite their various depredations, these food barons are routinely celebrated in the mainstream American press. Politico has called Mike McCloskey “the closest thing to a rock star in the [dairy] industry,” and Sue McCloskey was warmly profiled in Food & Wine. Mike Rowe’s reality TV show Dirty Jobs promoted the McCloskeys’ purportedly green scheme to convert cow patties into energy by housing manure in concentrated silos called “digesters,” which reap methane for fuel. Rowe helped sell the McCloskey’s environmental narrative: “At the end of the day when the dust settles, or in this case the poo, […] Fair Oaks Farms turns out to be one of the greenest factories in the country.”

Policymakers, politicos, and agri-academics need a copy of Barons in order to spot PR sleight of hand like this. A former government researcher, Frerick criticizes the McCloskeys’ scheme, pointing out that “some have argued that digesters do not make sense financially without massive government subsidies, for which industry leaders like the McCloskeys have been lobbying for years.” Above all, however, “the digesters ‘solve’ a problem that doesn’t even exist outside industrial dairy operations. On a traditional pasture-based dairy farm, cows defecate on grass and the manure serves as a natural fertilizer” that “releases carbon dioxide but little methane.” As with many of the barons’ industries, it’s the mechanized concentration that’s the problem, not the nature of the work itself.

In Frerick’s analysis, a number of political figures and entities emerge as corrupted parts of the American food system, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, agricultural legislation going back to the New Deal Farm Bill, and the US Department of Agriculture itself, which “spent more than $200 million on digesters in 2021 alone.” Frerick cuts to what’s at stake: “We’re looking at a future in which pollution becomes an extra revenue stream.” Federal attempts to help small farms end up sidetracked by the needs of the barons, who “go from wealthy to ultra-wealthy while polluting more and endangering workers and animals.”

What is staggering about Frerick’s discussion is that this monopolization only began a few decades ago. JAB “entered the coffee business only in 2012,” Frerick notes. “Even the [Cargill] Grain Barons, the longest-tenured barons portrayed in this group, saw their revenues nearly quadruple in the past two decades.” And the intra-industry conflicts the book outlines are monstrous, like battles in a horror movie. The final barons discussed, the notorious Walton family, are locked in a titanic struggle with Amazon for grocery-store omnichain supremacy; as Frerick says, it’s like Godzilla versus Mothra. All we can do is watch these behemoths duke it out from below.

Barons is yet another case study in reading our political era as the Extended Reagan Imperium. Presidents come and go, but the central feedback loop remains the same: stratification, conglomeration, and increasing wealth disparity. In his introduction to the book, Eric Schlosser names the central problem: ever since Ronald Reagan’s presidency,

the rhetoric of the free market has been cleverly used to thwart government oversight of corporate power, block antitrust enforcement—and eliminate free markets. When four firms control 40 percent or more of a market for products or services, true competition no longer exists.

As a result, “[f]rom birth until death, Americans must now confront markets that are anything but free.” Moreover, considering the price of exhausted soil, corrupted aquifers, and polluted air, it’s clear that we are pushing the limits of this system.

Each chapter of Frerick’s book is based on a tremendous amount of research, as well as anecdotal scenes of the author’s personal contacts with US agriculture. His prose is refreshingly accessible and nonacademic, but there’s enough historicization that even Fredric Jameson would approve. Some might criticize Frerick for his slim set of prescriptions for the mess he outlines so compellingly, but recommendations he does offer are clear and commonsense, especially his conviction that antitrust laws must be used to confront concentrated power. “If there’s anything to take away from this book,” Frerick writes, “it’s that the idea of a free market, unshaped by politics, our institutions, and other societal forces, is a myth.”

LARB Contributor

Devin Thomas O’Shea has written for Chicago Quarterly Review, The Nation, Boulevard, Slate, The Emerson Review, and other outlets.


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