How About A Little History With that Meaty Fresh Air?

Think of this blog entry as part of my never-ending attempt to bring history to the rest of us, and to make use of what I learned about meat history from writing the new book. Last week, Terry Gross, the host of a radio program called Fresh Air, devoted a segment to the current controversies surrounding meat. Her guest was Tom Philpott, a blogger who covers food for Mother Jones. (*1)

I’m delighted Gross devoted a program to meat and glad she interviewed someone other than the Usual Suspect --- it’s a subject that can use some, uh, fresh air. (*2)

Gross and Philpott covered a lot of ground: the dangers of the work; antibiotics in livestock production, Lean Finely Textured Beef (aka Pink Slime), and the use of “poultry litter” as the basis of cattle feed. (I disagree with his assessment of Pink Slime: It’s not “pet food.” See this longish explication.)

Gross asked Philpott about why the meat industry relies on tools like Pink Slime and antibiotic use. (Good question!) Philpott is correct when he explained that PS, antibiotics, and large confinement operations are driven by cost: The food industry does whatever it can to a) give consumers what they want; and b) keep costs low for both consumers and for the company bottom line. (That’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: companies are in the business of earning profits for their owners or shareholders. The way to do so is by making stuff people will buy.)

Where Philpott went astray is where I would have expected: in his explanation of the historical background (after all, the guy’s an investigative writer, not a historian).

Philpott dated the effort to contain costs to the 1970s and 1980s. He told Gross that back then, meat was a “luxury.” The meat industry decided that if it could produce meat more cheaply, grocers could sell it at a lower price; people would buy more of it, and corporate profits would rise. (*3)

Not quite.

Since the day the first Europeans got off the boat (early seventeenth century), the People Who Would Be Americans were obsessed with having meat, and lots of it. Entitlement to meat is as much a part of our national DNA as our right to free speech. Foreign visitors have always been astounded by the carnivorous bounty of the American diet. (I’m trying to keep this blog entry to a manageable length, so I’ll skip the details, but I detail the point in the forthcoming book.)

Historically, in the U. S. meat consumption, and especially beef consumption, have been tied to income: When incomes rise, so does meat eating. (That’s one reason, although not the only one, that Americans adopted a more efficient method of making meat back in the 1870s and 1880s.)

The connection between disposable income and meat consumption became apparent during and after World War II, when incomes rose markedly. (War, hot or cold, is good for the bank account.) (*4) At the time, farmers scrambled to meet demand by inventing new ways to organize livestock production. By the late fifties, for example, giant commercial cattle and chicken feeding operations had become common. Large-scale hog feeding was slower to unfold, but well underway by the late 1960s.

Philpott apparently believes that meat was a luxury back in the 1970s because he remembers meat prices being high then. It’s true that meat prices rose significantly in 1973 and 1974 in part because the costs of producing meat went up (thanks to high costs of grain and fuel). Consumers raised hell and the White House imposed price ceilings as a way to appease angry voters.

My point is that Philpott inadvertently confused cause and effect: In the U. S., food producers are under extraordinary pressure to keep food costs low. When they don’t, there is hell to pay: Consumers grouse, and politicians demand answers from food makers. (Early on in the process of writing this book, I lost track of the number of congressional investigations into high meat prices.)

Indeed, Philpott’s analysis ignores the way that consumer demand shapes the food processing industry. Put briefly, during the 1970s and 1980s, changes in demographics and in social and cultural mores altered what, how, and where Americans ate. Food processors had to respond to those changes.

For example (and as Philpott noted), starting in the 1980s, food processors integrated backward to the farm and built their own livestock feeding and breeding operations. He says they did so to control costs. That’s true but there’s more to it than that.

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, demand for beef  fell off a cliff, pork consumption stagnated, but Americans' intake of poultry soared. Why? Because consumers had become obsessed with the dangers of “fat” and chicken has a lower fat content than beef and pork. (Again, I'm simplifying a point that I detail in the book.) Food processors realized that if they wanted to satisfy consumers, they’d have to create “leaner” beef and pork.

How to do that? By breeding and feeding “leaner” cattle and hogs. But rather than simply hope that farmers would produce those leaner animals, food companies guaranteed the supplies they needed by building and operating their own livestock production facilities (using the large-scale and/of confinement systems that farmers had developed thirty years earlier).

Most critics of the “industrial” food system blame “corporations” for the problems of that food system. (*5) Corporations are an easy target, not least because this single, monolithic scapegoat enables activists with diverse interests to rally around a common enemy.

The downside, however, is that when critics blame a monolithic scapegoat, they miss the complexities of the woes they seek to fix. In this case, when critics blame corporations, it's that much easier to cast consumers as helpless victims of corporate greed. But consumer demand is arguably the most powerful force in American society. Leave that out of a critique and, in my opinion, you’re missing more than half the story.

But -- minor details. (Well, in my opinion, of course, not minor at all, but my perspective is shaped by my work as a historian. Historians live and breathe complexity.)

Take 38 minutes to listen to the interview.

________________________________ *1: Yep, that’s two blog posts in a row with that mention him. Not to worry: It’s just a coincidence.

*2: Based on my own experience, my guess is that she probably aimed for the Usual Suspect first, then a Second Usual Suspect; couldn’t get them, and landed on Philpott. Again, glad she did.)

*3: Philpott also blamed Walmart for the pressure that meat producers face. He explained that Walmart entered the grocery business in the 1990s and now “controls” it. And then said that W. controls somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of the grocery industry. That’s not “control.”

*4: A side note: I was amazed at how much meat Americans ate during World War II. I always thought of that period as being marked by rationing and a certain amount of deprivation. Not in the U. S. Americans were insistent that the government “do something” to make sure that meat was available. That’s one of the most interesting parts of the book because that war-time demand drove the research that led to the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock production.)

*5: There’s a historical reason for that: Today’s activists are the grand-children, metaphorically speaking, of Ralph Nader, the godfather of modern consumer activism. Back in the 1960s, he identified “corporations” as the source of all evil.)