So I heard about this new book coming out. It was described to me as an expose of the meat industry. After being bombarded by cleverly worded half truths and “where in the hell did you get that idea?” comments in books from the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser (did you know that he was Robert Redford’s son-in-law?) and the producers of Food, Inc., that magical film about the food we eat as imagined by renegades from the Walt Disney film factory, I wasn’t ready for another hatchet job.
I just wanted to read some good, well-written non-fiction.
This new book was written by Maureen Ogle who describes herself as historian, author, ranter and idea junkie. The title scared me. It’s called In Meat We Trust, a history of meat in America. Uh-oh. Burned again?
So I contacted her and asked about the book. It’s not due to hit your friendly neighborhood book store, otherwise known as Amazon.com, until November, so she sent a link to a preview copy. I promised to give it a quick read and get back to her right away with a few questions. Except I lied.
It took me weeks to figure out what to do with this book. It was a fascinating document that covered the long history of the industry, including several events that occurred during my lifetime; things that I knew first-hand. My memory concurred with what she wrote. So far, so good.
But some of things she wrote predated even my extended memory, so I called a few old guys - very old guys – to verify. “Yep, that sounds about right,” they said.
Maureen Ogle actually wrote a book about the meat industry based on fact, not fantasy? Have the heavens shifted and the earth’s axis tilted 180 degrees? Is Lucifer skating on thin ice in the very depths of hell? Surely pigs have sprouted huge wings and are now being housed in giant chicken coops to keep them from migrating to South America, never to roam the range free as birds again?
Yep, that sounds about right. When In Meat We Trust arrives in book stores in a few weeks, it will fit into the non-fiction section quite nicely. Don’t look for it in the fiction or the cook(ed) book section. If justice is served and the American public really wants to know the truth about the “history of meat in America,” all fact, no fiction, this book will sell at least as many copies as some of the best-selling books of fiction about the industry.
OK, that’s a stretch. It should sell at least half as many.
So now that I had finished my somewhat incredulous research, I got back in touch with Ms. Ogle and asked her a few questions about her book. Here is what she had to say for herself.
Q. In the introduction to your book, you wrote "The battles over production and consumption of meat are nearly as ferocious as those over gays, gun control and marriage." In your research were you able to come up with a few good reasons why meat is so controversial?
A. Because vegetarianism aside, human beings want meat. They like it. They crave it. They get mad when they can’t have it.
That’s the short answer. The long answer is . . . the book itself!
But here’s a medium-sized answer:
Settlers in colonial North America were astounded by how easy it was (relatively speaking) to keep livestock and thus enjoy meat. Everyone, even the poorest, could eat meat, a fact that visitors to colonial America commented on over and over again. As a result, when it came to meat on the table, the people who became Americans developed a sense of entitlement.
But historically, Americans have also demonstrated a decided preference for city rather than farm. Over four centuries, urban population soared. City folks don’t make their own food, but they are also demanding consumers: They want lots of food, especially meat, and they want it at low price.
As urban demand grew, farmer numbers dwindled. Charged with feeding many people, farmers consistently adopted labor- and land-saving tools. In the 20th century, for example, they embraced confinement, manure lagoons, and antibiotics.
Controversies develop, then, when city people demand cheap foodstuffs and demand that farmers figure out how to provide them.
A century ago, for example, Americans were convinced that farmers were deliberately avoiding cost-cutting technologies as a way to drive up food prices. These days, critics complain about those cost-cutting technologies, and many food reformers want farmers to return to more “natural” modes of livestock production, arguing that cost-reducing technologies are bad for the environment. Food activists also complain about the centralization of the meatpacking industry and the rapid-fire speed of highly efficient processing systems, both of which reduce consumer costs.
And yet --- if meat prices go up, consumers complain.
So the chronic disconnect between the mindsets of consumers and reformers on one hand, and the realities of supplying food to an urban population on the other will continue to generate controversy.
Q. Let's talk about your ‘Elysian Idyll’ - the time before the mid-twentieth century - back when the traditional family farm abounded, at least the image of it with the picket fence out front and the big, red barn in the back. Would you compare it with the 'post apocalyptic' change to the more industrial model that many of today's farms follow? And why has it become such a lightening rod issue to so many foodies?
A. The historical reality is that farming and agriculture have always been businesses, family-owned or otherwise. Farm families have always produced for the market and for profit. Do farmers enjoy their work? Sure. Do many enjoy the “lifestyle” --- being outdoors, being one’s own boss? Sure. But lifestyle aside, farmers are first and foremost in business. That picket fence and that big red barn? Those were visible symbols of a successful operation.
Food reformers, in contrast, tend to view farming and ag through the lens of corporate conspiracy. They’re convinced that farmer numbers have plunged because corporations are driving farmers off the land. They’re convinced that technologies like antibiotics and confinement are the products of corporate greed (never mind, as I found in my research, that many cost-saving technologies were developed and designed by working farmers). Activists seem to believe that farmers are or should be exempt from making rational economic decisions.
Finally, as I noted above, reformers misunderstand the paradoxical and complex relationship between farmer and consumer in an urban society. Urbanites want cheap food. Period. End of story. Farmers want to earn a profit.
Those two desires are fundamentally incompatible, and the “paradox of plenty,” as it’s called is a chronic problem in an urban society. It’s why, in the 1920s, Congress began considering plans to “subsidize” farmers: subsidy plans were the only way to give consumers the cheap foods they wanted while ensuring that farmers earned a profit that gave them income parity with those urban consumers.
Q. You talked about some of the horrors of meat production in the 1890's. What were they and what were the social advantages that came out of that era?
A. The horrors of the late 1800s were less horrors than they were facts of life that Americans wanted to change.
Back then, meat processing was, as it had always been, an urban-based business. Farmers drove or shipped livestock to a city stockyard, where hogs, cattle, and other stock was bought and herded to a city slaughterhouse or butcher shop. Most towns and cities had anywhere from a few to hundreds of slaughterhouses.
Add in the animals used to haul wagons and people, along with lack of sewer and water systems and, well --- I suspect we’re all glad we don’t live in such cities now.
But in the late 1800s, Americans decided that cities needed to be more “sanitary,” as they put it, as a way of controlling disease and reducing, say, infant mortality rates. Taxpayers voted to fund the construction of paved streets and centralized water and sewer systems. But they also decided that cities were no place for slaughterhouses.
And so Americans adopted the stance that making meat was “horrible” and had to be moved. Mind you, at the time, slaughtering operations were far more efficient and less noisome than at any time in history. What changed, however, was the way an urban society perceived slaughtering.
Q. About that lack of trust between producers and packers - something that we're seeing now between groups like NCBA, AMI, NAMA and R-CALF over the COOL rule - in your research, where did it start and why does it continue?
A. Producers and packers have loathed and mistrusted each other since the colonial period!
As part of my research, I read meatpacking trade journals as well as ag-related publications, and other documents, such as transcripts of congressional hearings. And over and over again, the message came through: Livestock producers assumed, rightly, that packers wanted livestock at the lowest possible price, while packers assumed, rightly, that producers would hold out for the highest possible price. That’s to be expected, right? Each one had/has what the other wants.
Over time, the two parties managed this fundamental conflict by systematically eliminating the obstacles between buyer and seller: the commission agents who bought stock on farms and the range; the dealers who negotiated sales between those agents and packer buyers at stockyards. It’s not an accident that the Union Stockyard in Chicago shut down in 1971: producers and packers had developed more “efficient” ways to make their deals, methods that eliminated middlemen.
But will buyer and seller ever enjoy a trusting relationship? I doubt it.
Q. Let's talk about feed additives, a current hot topic. Your book suggested it started in the early 1950's with vitamin B12. Has it been a real bonanza for the industry that is now becoming a noose in today's more contentious society?
A. Feed additives have been around as long as humans have fed domestic livestock. Back in the 1800s, for example, both turnips and potatoes were regarded as quality “additives” that would enhance livestock nutrition and help animals grow faster. By the 1920s, producers were using commercial feedstuffs laced with vitamins, minerals, and other additives.
But World War II revealed just how dependent livestock production was on imported additives (like fish oil) and so the USDA and farmers alike hunted for cheaper substitutes that could be manufactured at low cost.
Enter B12 (discovered in the late 1940s), antibiotics, hormones, plastic pellets, and so forth. Those arrived on the scene at a moment when farmer numbers were plunging even as urban demand soared (in part because of overall economic affluence).
So yes, those additives were a bonanza, ones that farmers coupled with things like confinement, sterile farrowing (for disease control), mechanized feeding systems and the like. Urbanites reaped the rewards in the form of extraordinarily low prices for all meats.
Now, of course, the vast majority of Americans are accustomed to cheap, abundant food, but have zero idea how those foodstuffs are produced. All they know is that, ick!, farmers use drugs on their livestock.
The question no one has yet answered (although economists have mapped out possible answers) is what will happen to supply and demand once those cost-cutting tools are eliminated. (I gather that most producers believe that their ability to use various “inputs” will be constrained). Will consumers reduce their intake of all meats as prices go up? Will farmers sell off herds and flocks? No one knows.
Q. You discussed a change is how the USDA operates that began with the Jack in the Box incident. What was the before and after? What were they doing before the E. coli outbreak and how did it change them?
A. When the Congress first created an inspection system in 1906, the idea was to root out diseased animals. Inspectors pulled animals off the line as a way of protecting the entire meat supply.
But over the next century, scientists created a host of tools for analyzing not just live animals but carcasses, too. And not just on the surface, but on the microscopic level. And the more tools they developed, the more they were inclined to focus on that micro level as a measure of quality and good versus bad meats.
The use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock production prompted the USDA and FDA both to require carcass testing for traces of both, a requirement that accelerated the search for accurate testing. But bacteria itself didn’t enter the picture in any substantive way until the 1980s, when the first evidence of “bad” E. coli was found. There was considerable wrangling then among food activists, USDA officials, producer organizations, and packer groups about who should test and for what.
The Jack in the Box episode of the 1990s simply highlighted that ongoing debate. The upshot, such as it was, was that all parties turned to the USDA and demanded that it be the arbiter of microscopic testing. But as we all know, trying to change a bureaucracy is difficult, and when said bureaucracy is governmental, damn near impossible.
At the time, much finger-pointing ensued and many USDA officials were happy to blame the inspectors’ union for lack of “progress” toward more modern inspection procedures. Frankly, it’s not clear that much has changed today --- except, of course, now all parties recognize that it’s not enough to pull diseased animals. Testing now must include microscopic assessments. (But as many people know, those are a moving target: A test that’s regarded as sufficient this year will be viewed as outdated next year. In some sense, the debate over USDA testing procedures may never be resolved.)
Q. From reading your book, my take away was the image of the modern meat industry can be described as the difference between "Boss Hog” Murphy and Eldon Roth on one side, and Michael Jacobsen and Michael Pollan on the other. Is that a fair statement?
Yes. And therein lies a problem. The disparity between Pollan’s view of how the world should work, and Eldon Roth’s working knowledge of how the world does work are galaxies apart. Pollan’s book was and is compelling not just because he’s a hellaciously good writer, but because the “problem” and his proposed solutions seemed so, well, obvious and simple. (Never underestimate the role of nostalgia in shaping consumer perceptions.)
But someone like Roth knows that in the real world, the combination of regulatory restrictions and the fact that the “sellers” are tens of thousands of producers means that absolutely nothing in livestock production and meat processing is simple or obvious. (And as an aside, I’d like to point out that both Roth and Wendell Murphy made their millions not through cheating or deceit, but by combining a good idea with decades of hard work.)
But he or she who controls the message and the media carries the day. So --- the average American will continue to believe that Pollan’s view is logical and possible and that everyone on the “other side” is a bad guy. How’s that for a gloomy endnote?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.