Americans eat more meat per capita than any country except Luxembourg. So for better or worse, you could say that eating meat is as American as apple pie.
Throughout our history, the American meat industry has been both a source of American pride and suspicion. But how did meat come to define part of what it is to be American?
Maureen Ogle spent years searching for the answer and she's written a book about it, "In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America." She joins Take Two to talk about what drove America's carnivorous predilection.
“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 cents; our routine, half-mile, gas-powered jaunts are once again affordable; and we rejoice. And because it’s so easy to blame corporations, few of us contemplate the morality and wisdom of using a car to travel a half-mile to pick up one item at a grocery store, which is what most of us do when gas prices are low.
So it is with meat. Most of us rarely think about it. After all, grocery store freezer and refrigerator cases are stuffed with it; burger- and chicken-centric restaurants abound; and nearly everyone can afford to eat meat whenever they want to. But when meat’s price rises above a (vaguely defined) acceptable level, tempers flare and consumers blame rich farmers, richer corporations, or government subsidy programs. We’re Americans, after all, and we’re entitled to meat. So we either pay up or stretch a pound of burger with rice or pasta (often by using an expensive processed product). Eventually the price of steak and bacon drops, and back to the meat counter we go with nary a thought about changing our diets or, more important, about the true cost of meat, the one that bar-coded price stickers don’t show.
That sense of entitlement is a crucial element of the history of meat in America. Price hikes as small as a penny a pound have inspired Americans to riot, trash butcher shops, and launch national meat boycotts. We Americans want what we want, but we rarely ponder the actual price or the irrationality of our desires. We demand cheap hamburger, but we don’t want the factory farms that make it possible. We want four-bedroom McMansions out in the semirural suburban fringe, but we raise hell when we sniff the presence of the nearby hog farm that provides affordable bacon. We want packages of precooked chicken and microwaveable sausages—and family farms too. After years of working on this book, I’m convinced that we can’t have it all. But I also believe that if we understand that the past is different from the present, the future is ours to shape. My hope is that this book will help all of us understand how we got to where we are so that, if we are willing, we can imagine a different future and write a new history of meat in America.
Chapter 1: Carnivore America
The white Europeans who colonized North America in the seventeenth century encountered extraordinary abundance. Immense bird flocks blackened the sky. Rivers and streams ran thick with fish. Shorelines teemed with crab and turtle, and forests with deer, bear, and other game. Above all, there was land, millions of acres, stretching off into a distance that would require several lifetimes to map and measure. Of all the cultural shocks that rattled colonists’ psyches, this was perhaps the greatest. Those first settlers emigrated from a world where land was scarce and ownership limited. Not so in North America, where land abundance enabled colonists to develop a meat-centered diet on a scale that the Old World could neither imagine nor provide. By the time Americans celebrated their first centennial, they had built a meat-making infrastructure that spread from East Coast to West.
In the earliest years, settlers trapped, snared, shot, netted, and feasted on venison, squirrel, and lobster; pigeon, pheasant, and possum. But they wanted more. Civilized people ate civilized food: beef, mutton, and pork. Civilized people exercised dominion over not just land but animals, too, especially cattle, sheep, and swine. To the men and women who settled North America, the idea of a world without livestock was as peculiar, and dangerous, as the notion of a world without God. Therein lay the road to savagery. Europeans had not traveled halfway around the world to emulate the natives they encountered in North America, wrote a chronicler of one settlement, for those “savages” “[ran] over the grass” like “foxes and wild beasts,” leaving “the land untilled” and “the cattle not settled.” Native villages scarcely deserved the name, for they contained neither pen nor barn. That lack of “civilized” markers spelled their doom: because the “savage people” “inclose[d] no ground” and kept no “cattell,” Massachusetts leader John Winthrop decreed, they forfeited any claim to the land and its wealth. Instead, white Europeans would rule and use the land to produce meat, thereby demonstrating the superiority of their own culture. Early success affirmed that belief: from the outset, colonists’ imported domestic livestock thrived beyond belief or expectation. One South Carolinian boasted that his colony was so “advantageously . . . scituated, that there [was] little or no need of Providing Fodder for Cattle in the Winter.” From north to south, hogs snuffled through forest floors carpeted with acorns and other mast, growing fat on nature’s bounty and multiplying to the point of nuisance. “Hogs swarm like Vermine upon the Earth,” grumbled one man, but the happy result was that colonial Americans never wanted for ham, bacon, and sausage.
But livestock also represented wealth and provided the easiest way to convert land to profit. Not everyone could afford, say, the slave labor on which rice and tobacco farming depended. Nor did every family have the hands needed to contest the forest; removing trees and undergrowth demanded years of backbreaking struggle. But everyone could spare the labor to keep a cow or two, and hogs required almost none at all. Livestock translated into tangible wealth that, with good management, multiplied more readily than silver or gold. In Maryland in the late 1600s, one cow and a calf carried as much monetary value as six or seven hundred pounds of tobacco, a third of a year’s crop for one man. Life in North America even transformed the meaning of the word stock. Back in England, the term referred to wealth in general, whether money, furniture, or tools. But by the late eighteenth century, Americans defined it as “live stock, or the beasts that are kept upon a farm.”
Settlers prized livestock as evidence of civilization and sources of wealth, but of course they also valued meat for its nutritional value. When we bite into a piece of “meat,” we’re eating muscle, or, more precisely, the tissue from which muscle is constructed, tissue that contains water, protein, and fat. The proportion of each depends on the age, size, and species of the animal, but a general average is 75 percent water, 20 percent protein, and 5 percent fat, all of which humans require for life. Nowadays, fat suffers an undeserved bad reputation, but it’s one of the body’s most efficient tools for storing energy; stored fat provided the fuel that enabled early hominids to run from danger. But colonists also favored meat because foodstuffs now deemed more healthful—vegetables and fruits—required more labor to produce in the form of planting, hoeing, and harvesting. Not that making meat was labor-free: all flesh, whether cattle, hog, or human, contains water that nurtures mold and bacteria, so it must be eaten immediately or preserved. During warm weather, when flesh putrefied quickly, a household might slaughter a lamb or calf, small animals that yielded relatively little meat that could be eaten before it spoiled. But most meats were preserved. Americans pounded chicken to a paste, stuffed it into ceramic pots, and sealed the container with a layer of fat or oil. They dried beef in the sun and salted and smoked fresh pork. Colonial diets tended to be pork-centric not only because hogs abounded but because pork takes to preservation more readily than beef.
Abundance and desire translated into meat on the table. Statistics are hard to come by for an era that predated census bureaus and questionnaires, but the evidence compiled by historians allows a broad generalization: the average white colonial American ate more and more varied food, and especially more meat, than anyone on the planet (aside from queens, czars, and other exceptionally privileged persons). Across Europe, a non-royal was lucky to see meat once or twice a week. A typical American adult male, in contrast, put away about two hundred pounds a year. (Slaves were chronically underfed and ate less of every kind of food.) Anecdotal evidence supports the estimates. A man who visited Pennsylvania in the 1750s marveled at the abundance of beef cattle. “[E]ven in the humblest or poorest houses, no meals are served without a meat course.” Servants accustomed to scraps and scraping by in the Old World assumed and expected hefty meat rations in the New. One visitor to North America encountered an indentured servant who had run away “because he thought he ought to have meat every day” and his master refused to cooperate. Another servant, William Clutton, complained that his master, one Thomas Beale, served only rations of bread and cheese when it was the “Custom of ye Country for servants to have meat 3 times a week.” Clutton threatened to strike unless the meat was forthcoming and urged his friends to petition the king to “have [the matter] redressed.” He was hauled to court, where officials charged him with mutiny and sedition. But Beale’s cheapskatery backfired: several people testified that Clutton was a “very honest civill [sic] person.” He paid his court costs and walked free, presumably headed back to work and the meat to which he believed he was entitled.
Over time, carnivorous paradise begot lethal legacy. The abundance of meat spawned waste and fostered indifference bordering on cruelty. “The Cattle of Carolina are very fat in Summer,” charged one critic, but bone bags in winter because their owners refused to protect them from “cold Rains, Frosts, and Snows.” Settlers dismissed such criticisms, claiming they could spare neither time nor labor to build animal shelters or fencing, occupied as they were with “too many other Affairs.” (That their free-roaming livestock placed them on the same plane as the natives they despised was an irony white settlers chose to ignore.) As a result, cattle and hogs scattered their droppings hither and yon, left uncollected because no one could spare the labor to gather and spread them on corn and tobacco fields. Thus developed a cycle of destructive extravagance that Americans passed from one generation to the next. Abundance of land nurtured an abundance of the livestock that enabled settlers to eat well and to accumulate tangible wealth with a minimal investment of labor. The more livestock a household owned, the more secure its financial future, and the more meat it had to eat. The more meat people ate, the more they assumed and expected a meat-centered diet, and the more land they wanted, especially for cattle; a single adult bovine required anywhere from five to twenty acres for grazing. As the years passed, settlers exhausted their soil and overgrazed their land. Rather than build fences or sell off their livestock, they moved on to fresh ground. And why not? In America, millions of acres lay just over the horizon.
The cycle of extravagance spawned conflict, violence, and war. Grazing generated endless court cases and squabbling among neighbors as livestock owners tried to determine who owned which animals. Laws aimed at quelling disputes proliferated, and colonial legislators established mechanisms for ownership—branding was most the common—and penalties for theft, which of course could be applied only if a litigant proved he or she owned an animal. Livestock lust fractured once close-knit communities. William Bradford, Pilgrim leader at Plymouth, Massachusetts, complained that as his flock’s desire for cattle and hogs increased, “there was no longer any holding [settlers] together, but now they must . . . go to their great lots. They could not otherwise keep their cattle. . . . And no man now thought he could live except he had cattle and a great deal of ground to keep them.” As a result, his people “were scattered all over the Bay” and their original settlement lay “thin and . . . desolate.” Bradford feared such desire would “be the ruin of New England” and bring “the Lord’s displeasure” down on them.
And not only the Lord’s. As whites migrated to accommodate their livestock, they collided with Native Americans. A member of the Narragansett tribe chanted a common lament: Once upon a time the tribe’s ancestors luxuriated in an abundance of “deer and skins.” No more. Now “the English” had stolen the land and allowed “their cows and horses [to] eat the grass; and their hogs [to] spoil [the] clam banks.” Cattle tromped through natives’ patches of beans and squash, and hogs rooted up caches of corn. Whites in search of fresh meadow and forest for their livestock commandeered land that natives regarded as theirs, encroachment that pushed Indians into territory held by other tribes and nations. More often than not, warfare ensued, especially once white settlers understood that they could use livestock to force Native American dispersion. “Your hogs & Cattle injure Us,” lamented one Indian in 1666. “You come too near Us to live & drive Us from place to place. We can fly no farther.” He begged the Maryland legislature to “let [his people] know where to live & how to be secured for the future from the Hogs & Cattle.” The answer? Nowhere. Courts refused to listen to natives’ complaints; assemblies ignored treaties; white settlers deliberately set animals loose in order to push Indians deeper into the frontier.
Natives in their turn used whites’ desire for livestock against their enemy. A royal representative who investigated one conflict stripped the event down to its basics: the English settlers engaged in “Violent Intrusions” as a way to seize natives’ land; Indians sought “Revenge” by destroying “the Cattel and Hogs of the English [sic].” In encounter after encounter, Indians stole, slaughtered, tortured, and mutilated livestock, because doing so struck at the heart of what it meant to be white and European. When a group of Narragansetts seized one white man, they forced him to watch as they killed five of his cattle. “[W]hat will Cattell now doe you good?” they asked. After staging a retaliatory raid, another group of Indians warned that they stood prepared to fight for “twenty one years.” “You must consider,” they told their foes, “the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.” During the ensuing two years of ambush, torching, and retribution, seven thousand Indians died as compared to three thousand whites. But the natives slaughtered eight thousand head of cattle.
Other livestock-driven battles would follow, but whites had won the war: they would convert the wilderness, and large chunks of the continent, into a livestock trail epic in size and in its demands on the land and its people. Corn, rather than Bibles, served as the tool of conversion.