Cheap Meat

True believers are a dangerous lot. Not dangerous in the sense that they’ll physically hurt, or inflict something worse on you—dangerous in that they think they are the only ones with a direct line to the source of truth.

Their unwavering belief in their cause—whatever that cause might be–renders them incapable of considering alternative viewpoints, or being able to empathize with how others frame the same issue with equal fervor.  While belief of this type is often directed towards deities and religious systems, more and more this same kind of rote call and response is found in most of the debates about issues from gay rights to gun control. Ultimately, people just end up talking past one another.

Food is one of those battlegrounds, among many, littered with unexploded mines waiting for you to step on. And again, opposing sides can’t seem to come a middle position between polar extremes.

Rarely do I read more than one book per year by a particular author. I think 2014 is going to be different; it’s only March and I’m already doubling up on books by Maureen Ogle.

I enjoyed her excellent book about beer and decided I wanted to read her latest one on America’s meat industry, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America. In it, Ogle drills down even further on the topic of food and looks at the history of meat in America, and along the way, reveals much of what is at the core of almost every other debate being waged in this country, the myth that Americans are wedded to—our pervasive sense of entitlement—we can have everything we want, in this case, meat three times a day and have it cheaply, while also not having any environmental, health, or other social fallout from the process. As Ogle indicates in her introduction, “we can’t have it all.”

Another great book by Maureen Ogle

Another great book by Maureen Ogle

While I have my own quibbles with some of her points, I think everyone would benefit from reading the book because Ogle does a terrific job helping readers understand how we got to where we are with meat today.

Americans want their meat (and they want it cheap)
Today, Americans slaughter 10 billion animals annually; actually, very few of us know anything about the slaughter of the animals we consume—perhaps if we did, it might change our perspective on eating them—it also might not. That means that in 2011, 92 billion pounds of beef, pork, and poultry was produced mainly through large-scale farm operations.

This carnivorous penchant of Americans is nothing new; Ogle does an excellent job in setting the table on our meat-eating history. What she also does well is debunk the myth about meat that says, “back in the good ole’ days” farm families raised a diversity of livestock and crops—chickens and cattle all grazed freely and ate natural diets. Then, the big, bad corporations barged in with their nasty factory farming operations and turned rural America into a feudal state beholden to agribusiness.

Actually, I’d be guilty of holding that belief pretty close to my bosom, and Ogle’s book opened my eyes and helped me to see that again, blindly subscribing to binary beliefs is intellectually disingenuous, even if they make us feel better, and even morally superior.

If you want to change your meat, you better change the model
In the 1820s, only 7 percent of the nation’s 9 million people lived off the farm. Beginning in the 1830s, the percentage of people moving to urban areas exploded—in a mere 30 years, one quarter of the 31 million Americans were calling cities their home.

This move to towns and cities and off farms is an important one; city folk don’t produce their own food. The more people live in cities, the more difficult it became for fewer farmers to feed the growing urban population in America. This is compounded especially in relation to meat production, and also because the urban population was skewed eastward, while meat production was in the west, with the large stockyards located in Chicago.

Some of the statistics offered by Ogle really made me sit up and take notice of this issue. For instance, in the 1860s, nearly 1 million people were living in Manhattan; in order to satisfy their appetites for meat, 1.1 million animals had to be slaughtered. This involved increasingly sophisticated logistical methods of moving livestock from the farm to the city’s slaughterhouses. Just getting the entire animal into a product that butchers could carve up for consumers was complicated enough.

Take eggs, for example. In the last 1860s, New Yorkers were devouring 126 million eggs annually. In another 10 years, the number was up to 442 million. These eggs weren’t coming from backyard hen houses, either.

Thus begins Ogle’s careful scrutiny of how the “Far West,” the region west of the Missouri River was turned over to cattle in order to feed the nation. While only touching on the need to remove the 30 to 40 million bison, who roamed the plains, along with the Native American population. Since the Indian way of life was dependent on bison for both their food and shelter and clothing, their extermination would destroy that and open the Far West up to cattle and the white man’s hustling ways.

What Ogle does well is to detail the evolution of meat production. If Americans wanted meat—and they most certainly did; cheap meat, too—then there had to be changes in the production of meat. This where the names of Gus Swift and Phillip Armour and the other packing magnates are introduced. Also, Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle; oh, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which actually had little to do with meat.

There have been countless books that have come out that cast Big Ag as villains and the progenitors of factory farming; that’s a convenient tack and one that reporter Chris Leonard takes in his exposé of Tyson Foods and the chicken industry.

Ogle covers Tyson in her book, so you’ll have to invest some energy and read it—I’m not going to spoon feed you the rest in my post. I will say this much—Tyson, and other meat producers are merely giving Americans what the majority want—cheap, plentiful meat.

The argument comes down to whether that’s in our best interests, or not, but maybe more important—is it possible to go back to a more idyllic time—and was there an actual, historical period like that?

Ogle’s position is that there wasn’t, and what makes it hard for everyone accustomed to fairy tale endings—she doesn’t offer a solution to wanting our meat, and wanting it as cheaply as possible.

When it comes to our food, and how it’s produced; the genie’s out of the bottle, and I don’t know how we can put him back, short of an entirely new way of living.

7 thoughts on “Cheap Meat

  1. You want to have a chance at bringing back a different way of producing meat? Shut down the USDA. Period. Just shut it down. It torments the producers of healthy, natural beef, pork and chicken (and for those who say the CAFO way is the only way, Joel Salatin’s pound-per-acre produced absolutely hammers the rest of his CAFO-supporting neighbors).

    Salatin, in his Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, in addition to pointing out in numerous ways that USDA inspection does absolutely nothing to insure safety, much less quality, in the production of farm livestock, he also ties the drop in quality of beef to the relationships between dairies, breweries and slaughterhouses all existing in close proximity in the cities. From feeding beeves the mash from the breweries, which introduces a host of new diseases to animals built to eat grass and not grains, it’s a quick step to a whole host of problems that the USDA and the rest of the inspectory government leeches now depend on for their livings. Feed these animals what they are meant to eat, and all those problems go away, and now the government leeches have no work. It creates a perverse incentive for the government leeches to hammer the natural (I won’t say organic, nor will Salatin, because it’s just another branch of the government leeches) farmers and ignore the utter catastrophes that are the CAFO factories.

    It’s getting so I can hardly eat beef anymore, now that I have learned (from Salatin) what the USDA allows them to be fed. But of course, the USDA approves feeding chicken manure to cows (yes, it does), so it must be safe, right? And good for us, right? Never mind that mad cow disease is entirely a product of USDA regulation, and that the USDA itself believes that its approval of feeding cow parts to other cows is somehow safe. Whenever I eat CAFO beef anymore, it tastes like chicken shit to me.

    I will get Ogle’s book from the library and give it a run-through, but anyone talking about finding other ways to run farms should be passing familiar with Salatin’s EIWTDII, which makes it quite clear that the government is the single biggest obstacle to improving our options.

    • I would agree with you about the USDA and shutting the agency down. My one concern (and I’m guessing Salatin addresses it in one of his books, maybe all of them) is can the U.S. produce beef in large enough quantities entirely with grass feeding? I’m done a quick cursory search via the web about this and there are those who say, “yes we can” and then, there are others who have doubts about the viability of doing so. Then, there is the position that we could cut back on our meat consumption.

      I think the strength of Ogle’s book is that it demonstrates that factory farming isn’t some “conspiracy,” but giving consumer what they want. She provides a great deal of documentation. What she doesn’t do it say that factory farming is the only way, or the way we should go–I do agree that Americans “can’t have it all–cheap beef that doesn’t value the work and investment of farmers.

  2. Yes, the industry grew the way it did in large part because it was the way to meet consumer demand, but it’s also worth noting that it did its best through marketing to expand that demand. Its tragic failing is that it (and their thoroughly marketed consumers) can only see industrial solutions, most of which have proven as bad or worse than the current industrial model. Meat grown in petri dishes?

    One of Salatin’s strongest criticisms is that the CAFO industries have huge government subsidies which small farmers don’t have access to, and in his case, which he wouldn’t take because they would force him to adhere to practices like feeding chicken manure to cows and taking government grain rather than his neighbor’s grain. If the CAFO industries were forced to compete on even terms, Salatin-style growers would win hands-down because they would be much, much cheaper than the thousand-mile steaks (or the chickens sent to China for processing and back, by boat), and they would provide beef, pork and chicken that was infinitely more nutritious and flavorful than the processed chicken manure we get in our grocery stores.

    I think you’re on it. It requires a change in how we eat meat, and a willingness to pay a fair price for it. Once again, the government has distorted the market in a way that looks beneficial to the American, but which kills the American later with poor health. That explains why Europe has far, far higher food quality across the board, with resulting lower medical expenses over a lifetime and longer life expectancy in nearly every European country. They look at us like we are, madmen trading what we should value most dearly in order to save a few bucks. As the saying goes, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  3. The book that’s even more eye-opening (and mind-blowing) is Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox: How PROCESSED FOOD Took Over the American Meal. The way food is literally deconstructed and put back together in combinations that our bodies can’t process and leave us starved, nutritionally. Oh, and the food scientists—those people who assemble the poison and make it seem innocuous—then, the marketers take it from there.

    What I find even more interesting as a writer who is trying to piece together some income from freelancing, is how most food-writing (better, food reviewing) doesn’t touch on any of this. It’s all, “oooo” and “ahhhhh” that food’s so pretty, or that over-priced restaurant’s macaroni and cheese (or worse, grilled cheese!!) is so wonderful! Of course, the only reviewers that get the gigs are the same types that keep perpetuating that bullshit (or is it, chickenshit). I see it every Sunday morning in my lovely Sunday paper’s arts section.

    It’s that kind of vapid, NPR patois, stripped of anything meaningful, but with just the right inflection and dropping the right restaurant names, or current food rage, or some asinine foodie trend that liberals lap up like a thirsty dog in July; as a result, the food-industrial complex continues to increase in size and scope, crushing anyone who tries to stand against it.

    I love supporting local farmers, but local food systems lack distribution, value-added capabilities and in a state like Maine, where something really great could happen, it’s really not (even though the food reviewers and food columnists make it seem like we’ve died and gone to heaven). Like just about any other system, things are so f*cked up that it’s hard to imagine moving the marker back even just a few yards, let alone to a time when things were somewhat functional. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try—it’s just important to recognize the scope of the challenge; oh—and lifestyle-ism isn’t going to cut it, or even make a dent. Whole Foods, and organic junkies just add to the problem (again, a nod to Warner’s book).

    There—I got that off my chest—I feel better.

    I guess I need to read Salatin, right?

  4. Well, I think it EIWTDII was an eye-opener. He confirmed my suspicions about the organic label, for one, but I have to admit that I had no idea of the gnat’s ass level of regulation that he has to comply with, and how thoroughly it prevents him from giving his customers what they want. I once shot off my mouth about the “boutique” prices at the Bowdoinham Farmer’s Market, and maybe there is a bit of that mark-up, but after reading Salatin’s book I understood that I was dead wrong. Those farmers are all laboring under the same regulatory regime, plus whatever Maine adds on, and given that I could begin to understand where their prices were coming from (the rules on slaughtering, processing and distributing are incredibly offensive to reason and are entirely intended to keep the small farmer at a gross disadvantage to the CAFO, for just one example).

  5. BTW, it seems the little guys need a voice. A niche that needs filling, maybe?

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