Economics, farming

Where’s the Beef?


If you live in the US and you’ve been into a grocery store in the last few weeks, you’ve noticed something. Meat is getting harder to find, and more expensive. The supply chain is thoroughly disrupted, for a lot of complicated reasons this post isn’t about. No, this is about one thing: why aren’t there local processing plants we can use to get our meat at? Why are we reliant, as a nation, on a few huge, vulnerable points in our food supply? Peter Grant was discussing this question on his blog, in more depth, but he mentioned something and that got me started… 

Upton Sinclair, that’s why. Upton Sinclair, who wrote a novel he thought would unleash socialism on the nation, and was surprised to get industry regulation instead. You see, The Jungle was entirely fictional. There never was that sort of malfeasance surrounding the food supply that he wrote about. He was trying to sensationalize the meat industry, and he succeeded. What he put into the book as pathos was taken as truth, when in reality he was relying on a drunk telling stories in a bar for much of his material around the stockyard, and the rest of it he swallowed piecemeal from other activists who wanted to see change happen and didn’t care how they achieved their goals. Sounds like PETA doesn’t it? It should, because it’s based in the same thing. Lies. Upton Sinclair created an urban legend, and the nation swallowed it as reality. 

His highly sensational account of the meat industry was almost entirely fabricated, yet it changed the face of American meat production. I highly recommend that you read The Problem with Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by Louise Carroll Wade. She goes deeply into his background and motivations, but the article opens with a thorough discussion of the faults of Sinclair’s portrayals of the stockyards and slaughterhouses. 

…scholars have ignored Sinclair’s skeptical contemporaries. The first group of governmental investigators, for example, thought packinghouses in the novel bore little resemblance to reality.

And the better known Neill-Reynolds report, which Roosevelt used to secure congressional action, actually commended the chilled meat division of the industry. Its authors, moreover, repudiated Sinclair during public hearings in June 1906. The President told William Allen White that although Sinclair was of “service to us,” he was “untruthful” and “three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods.” Journalist Mark Sullivan warned readers of Our Times to avoid “the error, practically universal, of classifying Sinclair and his ‘Jungle’ with the ‘Muckrackers.'” They are “utterly different… in their methods.” The best of the muckrakers “confirmed everything,” while Sinclair was a “propagandist” whose account of “conditions in the stockyards did not purport to have any more than the loose standard of accuracy that fiction demands for local color and background.” Even that was rejected by Ralph Chaplin, a socialist who grew up in the vicinity of the yards and packinghouses and was living there when the novel appeared. In his autobiography Wobbly, Chaplin said of The Jungle, “I thought it a very inaccurate picture of the stockyards district which I knew so well.”
Even Teddy Roosevelt, who was part of the movement to establish the FDA and the regulations that would later become a stranglehold on the meat industry, did not think highly of Sinclair. 
“President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Sinclair in a letter to William Allen White in July 1906, “I have an utter contempt for him.  He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful.  Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods.  For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”
There’s a more modern source on Sinclair I’ll also recommend, Of Meat and Myth by Lawrence Reed. It’s a fascinating insight into a man who sought to manipulate through appealing to the fears of his fellow humans, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in a direction he had not planned to go. Because he wanted to create socialism, and instead spawned the big meat packers who stamped out (literally with regulatory meat stamps) their small local competitors. In fighting for the ‘people’ he crushed the little guys. 
…an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry.  Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as “willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,”  “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.”

As popular myth would have it, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle and the meat packers fought federal inspection all the way.  The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meat packers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it! Knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller competitors under regulation, and put a newly-laundered government stamp of approval on their products, the major meat packers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.

In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law. The big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation as well as new regulations on their smaller competitors, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma. 

And that’s where the beef is. Right next door, but before you can buy that same cow in the supermarket, it first has to be trucked to some far-off place, for handling. Then it is trucked back again. Is it any wonder ‘store-bought’ isn’t as good as farm fresh? Of course, you had to have the experience to compare both, and for most of this nation, you’ve not been given that opportunity. Your food has been routed through the foolish regulations and strictures put into place stirred by emotions whipped into a froth by falsehood and half-truths. 
Sound familiar yet? 

13 thoughts on “Where’s the Beef?

  1. For this I got Honors American History. We were supposed to read The Jungle, but for me it was unreadable.
    And Grandfather would sell us a yearling from time to time. Definitely better!

    1. I have not read The Jungle in entirety and really don’t want to. Reading about how he wrote it is revolting – wholesale copying of activist tracts as part of his ‘original’ work? Where’s the integrity?

      1. I read it on my own in high school. Didn’t put me off eating meat – not even hot dogs and bologna – but did put me off reading anything similar.

        On my to-do list for today (even before I read this) is to reach out to the local farm and ask if they have meat. They were selling at the local farmer’s market, but, well, Winnie the Flu and all.

  2. I wonder if chickens, rabbits, pigeons… the grow it yourself meat stocks will come back into style.

    1. Maybe to some small degree, Mike, but raising and butchering even small livestock takes time many people don’t have, space many people don’t have, and expertise many people no longer have (though the expertise is easily gained). Then there’s the squeamish factor in a culture raised on movies with talking animals – little people in fur coats, as it’s sometimes expressed.

      I do think there will be a small uptick in the raising of small livestock, but probably a larger one in the push towards veganism, vat-grown ‘meat,’ and the eating of worms and insects.

    2. I know quite a few people who are thinking about chickens seriously. For eggs, more than meat. Rabbits are perceived as pets, and I’m not sure pigeons even cross the average mind as a meat source.

      1. My daughter and I keep chickens – for the eggs, rather than the eating. I’ll confess to being squeamish about killing any of the chickens, although I do threaten Larry-Bird the Rooster with the recipe for coq au vin when he gets a little obstreperous. When it has a name, it’s a pet, and one doesn’t eat pets unless totally desperate.
        Growing up, we had a neighbor who kept rabbits for meat, and we had rabbit frequently, as they were relatively cheap and my Mom could pinch a penny until a booger came out Lincoln’s nose – but most of our other neighbors and friends were as squeamish about eating rabbits as we are about eating our chickens.
        Cultural conditioning. I’d assume that a devout Hindu would be just as squeamish about eating beef.

        1. There’s no shame in it. Butchering and processing meat requires far more skill and care (and tools) than gathering eggs and harvesting vegetables. Most people have neither the room nor the inclination. I’ve done it, many times, and I am in no hurry to do it again.

  3. I’ve done quite a bit of butchering, was raised on wild game that my parents shot and butchered themselves, and I’m still a little squeamish. Butchering poultry doesn’t bother me, but rabbits (Cedar used to have to kill ours for me if her dad wasn’t around to do it) and goats are harder. Once they are dead, I’m okay, it’s killing them that’s hard. Especially if it’s an old doe that you bottle raised, and then milked twice a day for years. Makes you really respectful of where your meat comes from.

    We have chickens for eggs and pest control, and I’m working on getting the flock big enough that they will supply us with some meat, too, even though Icelandic chickens are about the same size as a Leghorn. The Icelandics don’t need a lot of purchased feed most of the year, which makes them economical to keep (though that might not be the case in a suburban yard – here they are free-range). They aren’t for everyone – they are almost as wild as game chickens, and fly pretty well for a chicken, too. They don’t do well in confinement, but a large coop would work.

    Then I have a small (Kinder – breed originated from a cross of Pygmy bucks on Nubian does) goat that I am milking; because we need weed control I also have a buck, and am going to keep this year’s buck kid as a wether. The little doe gives enough milk for the two of us, but I will need another doe if dog food becomes hard to get, or hard to afford. Most people don’t have enough room for a goat, but it’s sure nice to have your own dairy products if you can do it.

    And, this place came with three rabbit cages attached to the back of the chicken coop, where they are in the shade. There is another big cage (6’ square) that I’m planning to subdivide into four more rabbit cages. It’s possible to feed rabbits almost entirely on hand-harvested weeds and brush, if you have sufficient supply and the time to do it. They may not grow quite as rapidly, but if the feed is free, you can allow them the extra time to grow out.

    We also have a small pond, about thirty feet in diameter. It needs to be cleaned out and deepened, then stocked, but there is potential for adding fish to our diet once in a while.

    Eventually, when everything is set up properly, we will need very little purchased meat, and I might be able to arrange some trades for what we do need. But even on a city lot, it is possible to keep rabbits (in cages inside an outbuilding) and a few chickens. And pigeons can be kept anywhere, even apartment dwellers sometimes manage a few pigeons on the roof of their building.

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