by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

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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May 23 2019

Global Meat News on this industry’s sustainability problem

The meat industry is under siege these days over issues of sustainability.  The major recommendation of the EAT-Lancet report is to cut consumption of red meat by half in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is a worry for the meat industry.

This collection of articles indicates how this industry is dealing with the sustainability issue—in some cases, with difficulty, denial, and fighting back.

GlobalMeatNews.com, an industry newsletter, has this Special Edition: Sustainability

In this special edition on sustainability, we look at what the major players in the international meat industry are doing to ensure the future of the sector. We start with quality control plans with Brazilian poultry as well as a massive investment in solar technology by Hormel Foods. We also look at Cargill’s work on reducing antibiotics and a new beef scheme in Ireland.

Mar 13 2019

FDA and USDA agree on how to regulate cell-based (“fake”?) meat

Last week, the USDA and FDA ended their turf battle and announced a joint framework for jointly regulating cell-based meat products.

Congress instructed them to do this in a statement related to the Appropriations Act:

Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs shall enter into a formal agreement delineating the responsibilities of the two agencies for the regulation of cell-cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry. Such agreement shall be made public on the USDA and FDA websites within one day of the completion of the agreement.

These products, not yet on the market, are made from animal cells grown in tissue culture; no animals are killed in the process.

What to call these emerging products is a matter of some debate.  Proponents call them such things as in vitro, lab-based, vat-grown, or clean.

The meat industry wants them called artificial, synthetic, or fake.  It publishes a flier called “Fake Meat Facts.”

The proposed plan calls for the FDA to regulate the collection of animal cells, cell banks, and cell growth—the processes.  USDA will oversee production, as it does for live animals and poultry.

Much must be at stake.  The agencies’ framework is proactive; the products are not expected to be marketed for several years.

The meat industry is relieved that USDA is in charge.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston said, “The formal agreement announced today solidifies USDA’s lead oversight role in the production and labeling of lab-grown fake meat products.”

“This is what NCBA has been asking for, and it is what consumers deserve,” Houston said.

The market for these products is expected to be huge, but questions remain:

We will be hearing a lot more about these products as they head to market.

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Dec 20 2018

Keeping up with what’s happening in the poultry industry: GlobalMeat News.com

I subscribe to GlobalMeatNews.com’s daily newsletter to find out what’s going on in the international meat market.  Here is a sample of the type of issues it covers.

Special Edition: Focus on Poultry

The global poultry market is heating up with some major consolidation taking place. This focus on poultry looks at MHP and Cargill’s expansion plans as well as Costco’s decision to move up the food chain and manage its own supply. We also look at which countries are becoming the big players in poultry.

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Aug 31 2018

Halal meat: Global Meat News’ updates on the industry

Global Meat News is one of those industry newsletters I subscribe to.  This is a collection of its articles on halal meats—those from animals slaughtered and prepared according to Muslim dietary laws.

The market for halal meats is increasing worldwide.

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Global Meat News’ Special Edition: Halal

Halal produce is continuing to grow in demand across the international meat market, with China, Russia and Mexico showing a recent surge of interest in certifications and exploring opportunities for export. Is it time for halal meat to win over its previous critics by embracing the 21st​ century?

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Aug 9 2018

Global Meat News on the meat market in China

This is a collection of articles on the Chinese market for meat from the daily industry newsletter, Global Meat News.

Special Edition: Focus on China
China has been the highlight of the international meat market this year in terms of re-igniting unexpected relationships for trade access and its continuous clashes with the US market. With the Asian sector ramping up its global position, will we see China dominate the meat market in years to come?

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Aug 2 2018

Eat meat and reduce carbon emissions. How? Feed cattle on grass.

In response to my post last week about a new report on the effects of meat production on climate change and the need to eat less meat, Ridge Shinn, a producer of 100% grass-fed beef reminded me that meat has a place in the diet and raising cattle does not have to harm the planet.

The whole point of cattle raising is to graze the animals on land that cannot be used to produce food for people and let them turn grass into edible meat.  Raising cattle on grass, sustainably, regenerates the land and reduces carbon emissions.

Shinn summarizes the evidence in comments that he and other sustainable livestock farmers submitted to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

As ranchers and farmers who produce 100% grass-fed beef, we submit that the research on our product is already in. We are already employing techniques that soil scientists have validated since the 1990s. We know that corn is bad for cattle and that corn-fed meat is unhealthy for humans. Therefore we raise our beef on grass and pasture alone. We are managing our pastures and our herds to foster the soil microbes that science has shown to be critical to producing healthy meat, sequestering carbon, restoring soil fertility, and retaining water.

He also sent other useful resources on this issue.

A 2016 scientific paper by WR Teague et al in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation on the role of ruminant animals in reducing carbon footprints.

Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic C, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat. We conclude that to ensure longterm sustainability and ecological resilience of agroecosystems, agricultural production should be guided by policies and regenerative management protocols that include ruminant grazing.

A 2010 essay by Tara Kelly in Time Magazine based on a book review.

in his new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie, a British farmer and former editor of the Ecologist magazine, tears apart the theory that being carnivorous is bad for the planet — and says that eating moderate amounts of meat could be greener than going vegan.

A 2010 article by the journalist Lisa Abend, also in Time Magazine.

Environmentalists have been giving cows a bad rap in recent years. Between what bovines eat and what they excrete, cattle production emits a lot of greenhouse gas. But if fed solely grass, cows could play a key role in reversing climate change.

I think the arguments are compelling.  Animals have a place in human diets when they are raised sustainably and as humanely as possible.

Raising animals this way means fewer of them.  We still have to eat less meat—and eat meat of better environmental quality.

We could do this….

Jul 25 2018

Eat less meat: more evidence from climate change and health

GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) have issued a devastating report on the effects of meat and dairy production on climate change.

 

The report’s principal finding:

At issue are demands for growth in the meat and dairy industries.

The report explains:

Current industrial levels of production cannot be sustained, nor can growth models for meat and dairy remain unchanged. The paradox of the corporate business model based on high rates of annual growth versus the urgent climate imperative to scale back meat and dairy production and consumption in affluent countries and populations is untenable.

Its inevitable conclusion:

cheap meat and dairy comes at a high cost due to social, environmental and animal welfare problems that continue to be under-regulated. In addition, this production is only made possible because the corporations receive an indirect subsidy from taxpayers in the form of government-funded price supports that keep grain cheap.  

It is past time to regulate the industry and redirect the massive subsidies and other public expenditures that currently support the big meat and dairy conglomerates towards local food and farming systems capable of looking after people and the planet.

That’s the challenge.  The need to address it is urgent.  Let’s get to work.

Also see:

Meat consumption, health, and the environment.  Science July 20, 2018.  Authors: H. Charles J. Godfray, Paul Aveyard, Tara Garnett, Jim W. Hall, Timothy J. Key, Jamie Lorimer, Ray T. Pierrehumbert, Peter Scarborough, Marco Springmann, Susan A. Jebb.

This lengthy, extensively illustrated and referenced article covers much of the same territory but with greater emphasis on the health impact of meat consumption, and the amounts of water used in meat production, primarily from feed.