by Marion Nestle
Jul 26 2019

Weekend reading: Beef in American life

Joshua Specht.  Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. Princeton University Press, 2019.

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This is an enlightening, engrossing, and eminently readable cultural history of the beef industry in the United States, from the replacement of bison (and Native Americans) from the Great Plains to Big Meat to consumer concerns about the effects of beef on health and the environment.  What I so admire about this book is how it never loses sight of the big picture—the critical social and political forces that promoted the beef industry and made beef an icon of American society.

Specht summarizes big-picture aspects in his introduction:

The cattle-beef complex was the product of small debates, struggles, and fights over keeping one’s job, protecting a home, or making a dollar.  Ultimately, these were contests over what our food system should look like and how our society should be organized.  Low prices and sanitary meat at the expense of all else won out.  It was a system predicated on land dispossession, low wages, animal abuse, rancher impoverishment, and environmental degradation.  But it also democratized beef; hungry consumers could eat what they want3ed, and it tasted good.  Railroads, refrigeration, and capital made this system possible, but politics and struggle determined its contours (p.20).

Specht describes how the establishment of cattle ranching—e,g,, winning the West— meant the destruction of bison (and, therefore, Native American livelihoods).  Ranchers had to contend with the displaced and understandably angry Indians, of course, but also winter, drought, barbed wire, and theft.  Specht explains the political maneuvering that brought us to today’s highly consolidated, industrialized beef industry, controlled by just four companies, and producing most beef in CAFOs (controlled animal feeding operations) infamous for mistreatment of animals and environmental pollution.  How did this happen?

The refrigerator car and the managerial revolution explains how a small group of firms could dominate a world in which cattle were slaughtered in one place and eaten a continent or n ocean away, but the meatpackers’ victories over labor, the railroads, and local butchers explain how this state of affairs went from one that horrified people—pale grey meat in stuffy railcars—to one that was accepted as not only natural and inevitable, but laudable.  The key to the meatpackers’ success was that they would align their cause, centralized mass production of meat, with the interests of consumers (p. 178).

The interests of consumers?  Cheap meat.  As long as the present system keeps the price of meat affordable, it will be hard to mobilize public support for reforming the system.

This book is a welcome addition to the library of  books on the meaning of meat in America life, of which my favorites are Orville Schell’s Modern Meat (Random House, 1984) and Betty Fussell’s Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Harcourt, 2008).  Schell’s book predated Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, but covered much of the same territory.  Fussell’s is a cultural history.  Specht cites neither.  I commend them to his attention.

Earlier this year, the Lancet published two lengthy treatises arguing that the externalized costs of industrial meat production are unsustainable, and that halving current meat consumption must be a priority for improving human health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.*  It’s too bad these reports came out too late to be included in Specht’s analysis.  I would love to hear his comments on them.

* The two Lancet reports from January 2019 are:

  • Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393:447–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4.
  • Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender S, Atkins VJ, Baker PI, Bogard JR, et al. The Global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393:791–846. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736 (18)32822-8.
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