“Truly we may be called a carnivorous people,” wrote an anonymous American in 1841, a statement that is as accurate today as it was then. But to that general claim a twenty-first-century observer would likely add a host of caveats and modifiers: Although we Americans eat more meat than almost anyone else in the world, our meat-centric diets are killing us—or not, depending on whose opinion is consulted. Livestock production is bad for the environment—or not. The nation’s slaughterhouses churn out tainted meat and contribute to outbreaks of bacteria-related illnesses. Or not.
The only thing commentators might agree on is this: in the early twenty-first century, battles over the production and consumption of meat are nearly as ferocious as those over, say, gun control and gay marriage. Why is that? Why do food activists want to ban the use of antibiotics, gestation stalls, and confinement in livestock production? Why have livestock producers, whether chicken growers, hog farmers, or cattle ranchers, turned to social media, blogs, and public relations campaigns to defend not just meat but their role in putting it on the nation’s tables? This book answers those questions and more by looking at the history of meat in America.
The American system of making meat is now, and has long been, spectacularly successful, producing immense quantities of meat at prices that nearly everyone can afford—in 2011, 92 billion pounds of beef, pork, and poultry (about a quarter of which was exported to other countries). Moreover, measured by the surest sign of efficiency—seamless invisibility—ours is not just the largest but also the most successful meat-making apparatus in the world, so efficient that until recently, the entire infrastructure was like air: invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.
No more. For the past quarter-century, thoughtful critics have challenged the American way of meat. They’ve questioned our seemingly insatiable carnivorous appetite and the price we pay to satisfy it, from pollution of water and air to the dangers of high-speed slaughtering operations; from the industry’s reliance on pharmaceuticals to the use of land to raise food for animals rather than humans. In response, meat producers have reduced their use of antibiotics and other drugs; have abandoned cost-cutting products like Lean Finely Textured Beef (“pink slime”); have taken chickens out of cages and pregnant sows out of tiny gestation stalls. Men and women around the country have committed themselves to raising livestock and making meat in ways that hearken back to the pre-factory era. This book examines how we got from there to here.
In recent years, books about food in general and meat in particular have abounded and in sufficient variety to suit every political palate. Few of them, however, examine the historical underpinnings of our food system. That’s particularly true of ones that focus on meat. Most are critical of the American way of meat and assert an explanation of our carnivorous culture and its flaws that goes (briefly) like this:
Back in the old days, farm families raised a mixture of livestock and crops, and their hogs, cattle, and chickens grazed freely, eating natural diets. That Elysian idyll ended in the mid- to late twentieth century when corporations barged in and converted rural America into an industrial handmaiden of agribusiness. The corporate farmers moved livestock off pasture and into what is called confinement: from birth to death, animals are penned in large feedlots or small crates, often spending their entire lives indoors and on concrete, forced to eat diets rich in hormones and antibiotics. Eventually these cattle, hogs, and chickens, diseased and infested with bacteria, end up at the nation’s slaughterhouses (also controlled by agribusiness), where poorly paid employees (many of them illegal immigrants) working in dangerous conditions transform live animals into meat products. Agribusiness profits; the losers are family farmers who can’t compete with Big Ag’s ruthless devotion to profit, and consumers who are doomed to diets of tainted, tasteless beef, pork, and chicken.
I respect the critics and share their desire for change. But I disagree both with their explanation of how we got to where we are and with their reliance on vague assertions as a justification for social change, no matter how well intended—especially when many of those assertions lack substance and accuracy. Consider, for example, this counternarrative, which is rooted in historical fact:
The number of livestock farmers has declined significantly in the last seventy or so years, but many people abandoned livestock production for reasons that had nothing to do with agribusiness. From the 1940s on, agriculture suffered chronic labor shortages as millions of men and women left rural America for the advantages of city life. Those who stayed on the land embraced factorylike, confinement-based livestock production because doing so enabled them to maximize their output and their profits even as labor supplies dwindled. Confinement livestock systems were born on the family farm and only subsequently adopted by corporate producers in the 1970s.
We may not agree with the decisions that led to that state of affairs, and there’s good reason to abhor the consequences, but on one point we can surely agree: real people made real choices based on what was best for themselves and their families. Make no mistake: the history of meat in America has been shaped by corporate players like Gustavus Swift, Christian gentleman and meatpacking titan, and good ol’ Arkansas boy Don Tyson, a chicken “farmer” who built one of the largest food-making companies in the world. But that history also includes millions of anonymous Americans living in both town and country who, over many generations, shaped a meat-supply system designed to accommodate urban populations, dwindling supplies of farmland, and, most important, consumers who insisted that farmers and meatpackers provide them with high-quality, low-cost meat.
The tale chronicled here ranges from the crucial, formative colonial era to the early twenty-first century, although the bulk of the narrative focuses on the second half of the twentieth century. It answers important questions about meat’s role in our society. How did the colonial experience shape American attitudes toward meat? Why did Americans move the business of butchering out of small urban shops into immense, factorylike slaughterhouses? Why do Americans now eat so much chicken, and why, for many decades, did they eat so little? Why a factory model of farming? When and why did manure lagoons, feedlots, and antibiotics become tools for raising livestock? What is integrated livestock production and why should we care? Why is ours a “carnivore nation”? My hope is that this historical context will enrich the debate over the future of meat in America.
My many years engrossed in a study of meat’s American history led me to a surprising conclusion: meat is the culinary equivalent of gasoline.
Think about what happens whenever gas prices rise above a vaguely defined “acceptable” level: we blame greedy corporations and imagine a future of apocalyptic poverty in which we’ll be unable to afford new TV sets or that pair of shoes we crave; instead, we’ll be forced to spend every dime (or so it seems) to fill the tank. But we pay up, cursing corporate greed as the pump’s ticker clicks away our hard-earned dollars. Then the price drops a few