“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” This is how American journalist Upton Sinclair summed up the reaction to his 1906 novel The Jungle. The novel was an exposé of the harsh working conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, which Sinclair hoped would induce sympathy for the workers. Instead, the public noticed the unsanitary practices of meat production described in the novel and demanded regulations to ensure meat safety. Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America is a historical account of how the beef industry described in Sinclair’s novel took shape.
Specht’s book explains the remarkable transformation that took place in the US between 1860, when most cattle lived, died and were consumed within a few hundred miles’ radius, and 1906 when an animal could be raised in Texas, slaughtered in Chicago and consumed in New York.
Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America
Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht, Princeton University Press, 2020.
Specht argues that the key aspects of industrial beef production – centralisation, meatpacker domination and low cost – were pioneered during this period. The book’s larger and more provocative argument is that the beef industry and the US co-evolved and shaped one another.
The emergence of ‘read meat republic’
The late 19th century saw the emergence of what Specht calls a “red meat republic”, where the emergence of a centralised meat production system was tightly linked to the expansion of American power west of the Mississippi and to the development of the federal state. The history of the American beef industry, like the history of the US, begins with a war against Native Americans. The subsequent legislation of land rights and the centralised regulation of beef production consolidated the relationship between the meat industry and the federal state.
The book takes on the persistent myths that have served to obscure the ugly history of how beef was made cheap and abundant at the expense of Native Americans, slaughterhouse workers, small ranchers and wholesale butchers, not to mention animals and the environment.
One such myth is the romance of the west of the country as an open range that was waiting to be settled, or as a frontier inhabited by primitives in need of civilisation. These myths allowed for war and dispossession to be presented as an innocent settlement or as a civilising mission.
Another myth deflated by Specht’s book is the figure of the cowboy as an expression of independent manhood. In reality, cowboys were nothing more than precarious wage labourers. Finally, there is the myth of technological determinism that presents advances in transport and refrigeration as leading inevitably to the meat industry as we know it.
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Specht explains that the industry is the result of these technologies plus thousands of large and small struggles among workers, industrialists, bureaucrats and consumers.
Each one of the five chapters of the book discusses one of the steps that turned cattle into beef: War, Range, Market, Slaughterhouse and Table. The War chapter is the best written and the most illuminating of all. It narrates how cattle ranching in the west of the US originated with the expropriation of Native American lands through ranchers’ efforts and government policies. The chapter evokes the ecological transformation of the Great Plains from being an ecosystem defined by grass, wild bison and nomadic Native Americans to one dominated by grass, cattle and white settler-ranchers. Commercial hunters aided by horses eliminated the wild bison population in only a few years.
As expected, the extermination of the bison brought about the defeat of the Native Americans who relied on them. The indigenous population was reduced to staying in designated reservation areas where they became dependent on government beef rations to survive. Ranchers were the clear winners, having acquired the land and secured lucrative government contracts to supply indigenous reservations with often substandard beef.
The Range chapter goes into another forgotten episode in the history of the American meat industry. It tells the story of the rise and fall of a speculative bubble in which large-scale ranching in the west of the United States was fueled by investment capital from the east of the country and from Britain.
After the violent expropriation of Native American lands during the 1870s, capital poured in to spur large-scale ranching. In the 1880s there were clear signs of overproduction which, coupled with the devastating winters of the mid-to-late 1880s and the difficulties of accounting for free range cattle, led to the collapse of corporate ranching. Small-scale ranchers replaced corporate ones and winter feeding with hay replaced year-round grazing. Small-scale ranchers were subordinated in the meatpacker dominated system that was solidified after the collapse of corporate ranching.
In Market, the focus is on the challenges of mobility, given that beef is perishable and is produced far away from its place of consumption. The chain of production moved animals from ranchers who raised the cattle, to those who fattened it and finally to those who took it to the slaughterhouse. Driving cattle by men on horseback was a task full of risks. Cattle trailing was threatened by lack of water along the way, the spreading of disease, the possibility of theft and the danger of stampedes.
Rail transportation of live cattle also had its challenges. If the train was too slow the cattle would lose valuable weight, but if it was too fast the animals could get injured. Once the animals reached the market, they were entrusted with a local stockyard company that took care of them for a fee.
Sale prices were always less than ranchers expected given that buyers could wait to purchase while the ranchers had to pay to keep their cattle in the stockyard until sold. The creation of an integrated national cattle market system resulted in a centralised regulation regime and the standardisation of the spaces through which the animals passed.
How four companies with headquarters in Chicago became the dominant players in the meat production business is explained in Slaughterhouse. By 1889, Armour & Co., Swift & Co., Morris & Co. and Hammond & Co., also known as the Big Four, had grown from regional players to global behemoths.
In the 1860s Cincinnati’s pork packinghouses were the first modern production lines. They kept products moving constantly, requiring workers to keep up with their pace. Henry Ford explained that his idea for continuous assembly was inspired by the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers used in dressing beef.
Meatpacking plants relied on cheap desperate labour provided mostly by immigrants. The workers’ efforts to organise were defeated by the assembly line’s deskilling of labour, which made workers easy to replace. Workers also lost the battle against the negative attitude of the government and the general public towards labour unions. Chicago’s slaughterhouses eventually came to control refrigerated shipping technology. This became even more profitable as they moved into national fruit and vegetable distribution.
Regulation of the meat industry
Sinclair’s protest novel led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This Act regulated the meat industry, but it did not address the oligopoly of the Chicago companies. Few people were willing to take on the companies that had “democratised meat” by making it cheap. Most turned a blind eye towards the brutal and exploitative practices of the meatpackers.
Beef industry in the US
The beef industry in the US has been able to inspire a culture and ‘fulfill’ the aspirations of the poor to a meat-based diet. photo: Facebook/Virgina Beef Expo
In the final Table chapter, Specht explains consumers’ support for the Big Four as the result of a culture that has many longstanding associations between meat consumption and superiority. The meat industry had fulfilled the aspirations of the poor to a meat-based diet. European immigrants, who grew up eating meat only on special occasions, wrote back praising the abundance of affordable meat in the US. There was also the racist belief that beef-eating peoples were the most civilised. The satisfaction of having access to abundant and cheap meat trumped the concerns over environmental, animal and workers’ welfare.
Specht’s account is limited to the formative decades of the meat industry. He makes only a half-hearted effort to connect that history with the present and insists that in spite of changes “the system’s broad strokes remain the same”. However, the changes are more significant than Specht suggests.
The current meat industry has increased exponentially the horrors and unsustainability of the early system described in Specht’s book. For one thing, the industry now depends on concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs.
These are industrial farms that confine thousands of animals (cattle, pigs, chickens) and produce enormous amounts of polluting waste. The meat industry seems keen on fulfilling the meat-eating desires of the whole planet. However, we cannot afford to ignore the suffering and the devastating environmental consequences of the meat industry for much longer. The excuse of “democratising meat,” which is based on a peculiar understanding of democracy, has run its course.