What I Learned from “In Meat We Trust”

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I love history, I soak it up whenever I am able. I also love meat and animal agriculture. And I really love the truth; factual, accurate truth. Two weeks ago this book fell into my arms and I eagerly devoured it. Finally, a factual book written by a neutral observer of the topic rather than a sensationalized, exaggerated fictitious book written by a very biased observer. Thank you Maureen Ogle!

“In Meat We Trust” examines the history of the American meat industry and pieces together the many complicated segments that keep boxed meats rolling off the conveyor belt at an affordable price. Can’t very well form and defend opinions about a topic without a knowledge of its historical evolution.  Finally, the fuzzy, confusing meat industry is starting to make sense!

Here’s a fraction of the rich history you’ll find in “In Meat We Trust.”

How did Americans expect to feed a rapidly growing new country without some form of deliberate livestock production? By the time America was ready to dual itself in the Civil War, a quarter of the country lived in cities. That meant a quarter of the country demanded fresh meat but were doing nothing to make it happen. Farmers felt the pressure and started to look west. Why not convert the grassy range lands of the west into animal protein? We can drive the cattle to stockyards in Fort Dodge and Chicago and then ship them live in rail cars to the slaughter houses in the east coast cities. After a few years of urbanites being inconvenienced with city butcher shops slaughtering locally, city councils pushed the butchers out. Large, centralized slaughterhouses entered the scene, far, far away from the cities. In the 1870s, ranchers started adding a little high quality bonus to each animal by driving the rangy cattle to the Midwest Corn Belt to get fattened before arriving at the stockyards.  By the 1880s, Swift & Company had perfected the air chilled rail car so that livestock wouldn’t have to be transported for slaughter on the east coast at all. As soon as the fattened animals arrived at the stockyards, they could be immediately processed and then just the hanging carcass shipped east. Out of consumer sight, out of consumer mind. Perfect for the consumer!

At the turn of the century, with chatter of WWI brewing in Europe, American meats became a hot international commodity. This increase in demand spiked domestic meat prices and drove consumers to launch food riots and meat boycotts. (Must keep meat prices low!) Farmers and packers struggled to meet the overwhelming demand but as soon as they did, war ended and the demand dropped leaving a very saturated market and farmers neck deep in debt. The 1930s brought the depression and FDR’s first farm subsidy programs to help control the excess of supply and support the weak prices.

A foreshadowing of ‘factory-like’ livestock production began in the 1920s but really didn’t make a splash until WWII solidified the need for efficient farming to make up for the labor shortages and huge overseas demand. Confined, factory-like systems stemmed from the minds of farmers themselves, designed to increase output with reduced labor, somewhat control outside variables and still manage to squeeze out a profit. Farming can’t be economically sustainable unless farmers profit enough to stay in business, farms are no different than any other business in this sense.

By the 1940s, Ken Monfort of Greeley, Colorado started to introduce some really innovative ideas for the cattle industry. Use the available feedstuffs around you to feed your cattle, for Monfort that was alfalfa, beet tops & pulp and corn silage. No need to truck in ear corn from the Mid-West if you can feed alternative feedstuffs sourced locally. Not only was Monfort a cattle feeder, but he was also a packer and this gave him a huge advantage in the marketplace. His slaughter plant built in 1960 was located right next to his feed yard and he designed the plant to be horizontal, not vertical. The hanging beef flowed on a rail conveyor system and workers stood on adjustable platforms. His second plant opened in 1962 and was designed specifically to break the hanging carcass into smaller primals that could be bagged, boxed and stacked. Welcome “boxed beef!”  Grocery store meat departments will forever have a love-hate relationship with you.  (And I can tell you that from personal experience!)

The 1970s brought a bit of a crisis to the agricultural community. Inflation, high grain prices, global famines and fuel wars pinched farmers profits and sent prices for farm commodities soaring again. Housewives boycotted all meat except for cheap chicken. “Big Ag”carried the weight of the blame. Smaller farmers went in debt simply trying to make money by increasing large outputs that global demand couldn’t keep up. Since “Big Ag” survived the 1970s when so many struggled to stay afloat, then they must somehow be to blame. Never mind the fact that they supported rural economies by employing large numbers of workers. And let’s not forget where “Big Ag” originally came from, farmers themselves looking to keep up with domestic and global demand with less resources while still making a profit.  Big task for those 2%.

Since the 1970, the ‘alternative agriculture’ movement worked to fight the “Big Ag” that we all created and since it happened to be big and successful, it must be evil. Since when did big and innovative and technologically advanced become so wrong? “Alt-Ag” and niche market farmers and the consumers demanding these products popped up across the country. The diversification of farm models, production practices and consequently labeling claims continued to expand in the 1980s and 1990s, and of course more than ever to this day.

Let’s take a step back and consider the consumer for a minute. The overwhelming majority of society that contributes nothing to their own basic needs for food but expects the 2% to carry that full weight. They rioted when the price of meat rose a few pennies per pound, caring little about the pressures affecting the industry. If they have to pay more for an essential need such as food, then their spending cash for non-essential goods decreases. That’s a problem, we must have our luxury items! How dare life-sustaining food cost us over 9% of our income! Furthermore, producing food takes time, precious time plus its dirty and exhausting work. Clearly not many people care to live the farming lifestyle since growing cities are rupturing into the country and creating endless miles of suburbia. (Which was once valuable farm land).

Not only do we expect meat to be cheap, but we want it cut to our exact specifications, packaged just so and labeled up one side and down the other with every possible piece of information. What a tall order for the maybe 1% profit margin packers to fill! We also want a variety of choices; organic, local, grass-fed (ideally all three). We want it to come from a nearby cute farm, but wait, not too close that we smell manure when we walk outside for a leisure stroll.  We want it all, literally. Something has got to give if we want it all.

The challenge is we want relatively inefficient farming methods to produce immense quantities of affordable food (for us and the rapidly developing world). But we can’t have both. Can those 2% actually produce enough food for the 98% of the American population not involved in their own food production using small-scale, turn of the century farming practices?

Farms come in all shapes and sizes and produce a wide range of conventional and niche market products. This wouldn’t be the case unless there was a reliable demand for these goods. It’s likely we will always have a society (and a world) where the masses live in cities and don’t contribute to their own food supply and as a result, the demand for large-scale production and amazingly affordable foods will continue.  Likewise, a small percentage of society do, and probably will continue to seek out niche market foods and accept the higher costs these products demand.

Food is an incredibly simple, common need to us all and we are all incredibly complex, picky and demanding.  (Face it, we are)  Because of this, farmers will continue to supply a wide range of food choices for the masses.  Ah, what a diverse bunch we all are making for an equally diverse bunch of farmers!

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