cover image Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry

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

Austin Frerick. Island, $29 (248p) ISBN 978-1-64283-269-3

In this eye-opening debut study, Frerick, an agricultural policy fellow at Yale University, reveals the ill-gained stranglehold that a handful of companies have on America’s food economy. Tracing the paths various corporations took to achieve market domination, he repeatedly demonstrates how their rise was aided by infusions of corrupting money into the political process. Frerick, who grew up in Iowa, came to this topic out of curiousity about why his state had changed so much over the decades. Once known for its “strong middle class,” Iowa is “now defined by... decaying towns,” Frerick writes, but “the most jarring change is that the animals have disappeared from view.” His investigation tracks how the Hansen family, through their company Iowa Select Farms, have “built an empire of hog confinements,” an innovation in the pork industry that is disastrously toxic for nearby communities. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the Hansens triumphed by capturing the regulatory system through lobbying, including for state policy changes that undermine county-level regulation. Such unsettling revelations are peppered throughout Frerick’s deep dive; for example, despite entering the coffee industry only a decade ago, “the mysterious Reimanns, a reclusive German family with historical ties to the Third Reich,” have become second only to Nestlé by buying up trusted independent brands like Green Mountain, Intelligentsia, La Colombe, and Stumptown. It’s a disquieting critique of private monopolization of public necessities. (Mar.)