Why are Americans eating more meat than ever? Are we swayed by ads? Brainwashed by the factory farm industry? Not really. The answer, says Maureen Ogle in her latest book, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, is that the American public has an ingrained, almost unconscious desire for meat.
In recent years, there's been a lot of attention on where your food comes from, how it's grown and just what's involved from barnyard to plate. Ads like the recently-released video short from Chipotle firmly point the finger at factory farms and animals pumped full of chemicals as a mainstay of the American bread basket while Eat Local and Organic movements have grown in prominence across the nation. How and who brought us to this point?
Ogle, who's known for her fantastic Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, puts together a detailed and eye-opening account of how we came to eat so much meat and how the food industry has evolved to feed a growing domestic and global population. It's often said that you never really want to see how sausage is made, but the story Ogle presents is a fascinating one that tells the personal stories of American farmers, and the overarching trends that shaped farms they tended.
The nature of our meat industry today comes directly from the country's colonial roots, when settlers from Europe encountered an abundance of animal wealth. The new world was a bounty for European settlers, who hunted native animals and imported livestock, often coming into conflicts with the people already inhabiting the New World. As a result, "Americans never wanted for ham, bacon and sausage," a major change from their former homeland. This would have a profound impact on the new country for centuries to come.
As America grew, so too did the demand for food. Ogle traces the development of farming from the early colonial days as Americans pushed out from the East Coast further and further west. With demand came industry, and farmers found plenty of opportunity in raising hogs and livestock. Increasingly, farmers would raise their animals, drive them to major population centers, slaughter them and return to start the cycle again. With this system began a long-standing contradiction between those who produced meat, and those who ate it. The meat industry and associated slaughter operations smelled and was an expensive process, inherently at odds with a public that demanded clean air and cheap meat.
Reading In Meat We Trust, I was struck by some of the similarities between the historical players in the meat industry, and that of other industries today. There's a clear line that one can draw with the publishing or computer hardware industries, for example. Frequently, the meat market was dominated by producers: first with the men who raised cattle and hogs and drove them to major cities, who were in turn undercut by people who found a cheaper way to slaughter, freeze and then transport their meat to cities, who were in turn replaced by an even more efficient, cheaper and faster way to bring meat to the customer. At its heart, the story of meat, and by extension, any major industry, is one of infrastructure and innovative planning.
An interesting subtext that Ogle presents is the divide between the Americans who lived in rural parts of the country and those who lived in the ever-growing cities. Smell, pollution and waste pitted food producers and refiners, often forcing them away from where people lived. The results were increased pressure to improve and advance better cities and their supporting infrastructure, but also created a divide between Americans and where their food came from, often creating additional regulatory fights.
If there's any message in this book, it's to cut through the myriad of assumptions about how meat is grown and produced. Ogle's work isn't a celebration of the industry, but it isn't a condemnation either. Simply, it's a book about the American consumer, and how its demands have largely shaped and created the farms that we have today.
The idealistic, family farm that once fed the American public is largely a myth: the raw demand for animal flesh has always outstripped what independent farms have been able to produce, and favored a centralized, industrial process that eventually led to things like lean finely textured beef (also known as Pink Slime). Indeed, it's with LFTB that Ogle continues to cut through assumptions. Disgusting as it was, she noted that the product was produced in some of the industry's more advanced and safety conscious factories, interesting, when one takes into consideration the potential for disease in other parts of the meat industry.
Alongside the various technical and social advances, Ogle traces the economic history of the meat industry, discussing an industry that frequently operated at razor thin margins that continually pushed farmers to cut costs wherever possible, often replacing human power with machines and automations, particularly during the Second World War. The drive to widen the margins are also what are largely responsible for the drive to shorten animal growth times (often through antibiotics), create animals that produce far more meat than their naturally occurring relatives, and to find a use for just about every part on an animal. At the same time, the potential for disease and environmental degradation is overlooked.
There have been a number of books out about the ethics of how and what we eat, but Ogle looks more towards the historical and economic reasons for the systems that we've built and which sustain the country's desire for meat. In Meat We Trust is an interesting, evenhanded and thought provoking history, one that traces the story of farmers, industrialists, grocery stores, chicken nuggets and above all, the American public. It provides plenty of food for thought, which, at the end of the day, is what as a nation have largely demanded already.