How Cheap Meat Became an “Essential” American Value

Keeping meat production moving during the pandemic is dangerous. But history shows that there’s little Americans won’t sacrifice for a steak.

A black-and-white photo of a crowd of men in a restaurant in aprons with signs that say STEAK and BEER.
A beefsteak dinner from the early 20th century at Reisenweber’s to honor H.H. Rogers and Mark Twain. Library of Congress

“Get used to expensive meat, with price woes lasting all year,” Bloomberg’s Jen Skerritt, Michael Hirtzer, and Lydia Mulvany warned on April 30. The slowdown of production lines in meatpacking plants “could disrupt America’s food supply for years to come,” Adam Clark Estes wrote for Vox last week. In an ideal world, news about what’s happening to the meatpacking employees forced to work at risk of infection would shock us to the core. But when it comes to pandemic stories challenging mainstream Americans’ perception of their country as the “land of plenty,” empty meat shelves at the supermarket is probably at the top of the list.

How will people react, if the direst predictions of meat shortage come true? Historian Joshua Specht’s book Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Tail History of How Beef Changed America, which is about the half-century between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 when Americans went from eating beef infrequently to seeing it as their birthright, has been on my mind. Many of the elements of our industrial meatpacking system, including the public’s willingness to tolerate brutality and exploitation of workers (and animals!) in order to have easy access to tenderloin and porterhouse, date to those years in the late 19th and early 20th century.

I called Specht up to talk about the coronavirus shortages, the exploitation of the workforce, and whether he thinks these news stories have any potential to shift the political will toward reforming our industrial meat production system. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: Because we’re in this weird time where meat availability is unpredictable, I’ve been thinking a lot about the chapter in your book where you write about meat’s centrality to culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is the time when beef first became widely and cheaply available to Americans. You call it the “democratization of beef.”

Joshua Specht: That’s right. As fresh beef became widely available, it became the metric of success in America, for recent immigrants from Europe, for the working class. To be successful was to eat beef. That meant that this was now a tool for producing meaning in people’s lives, and it meant that supplying people with cheap and affordable beef became imperative.

And there’s this whole cultural story about cattle ranching and the American West; beef gets tied into American expansion, and so to eat beef was not only to be successful, in a way it was to be “American.”

That set of beliefs provided a ready outlet for these kinds of upstart industrial beef producers—basically, a justification. So when they came under criticism, meatpackers would say, “Well, we’re giving beef to the working class, the ‘common laborer,’ ” as they would put it. The producers were trying to argue for particular ways they could do business: “We are trying to provide Americans with what they need.”

Basically, “we’re providing an essential service.”

Right! I argue that those meatpackers developed a playbook in the late 19th century that’s still deployed today. One of those people, for instance, was Philip Danforth Armour, the founder of the meatpacking firm Armour and Co. He was called before the Senate, and the Senate asked him about using predatory pricing—bankrupting butchers, price-fixing, and squeezing ranchers. And Armour says, Look. I’m getting beef to the urban masses, and that requires different rules. It requires a different way of doing business.

Some people reacted to this with skepticism, but I think, to a certain extent, the argument was successful. It gave meatpackers a line to use. What you would see was, whenever people thought about regulating meatpacking, they would ask themselves, How does this affect consumers? This is common today—any criticism of meat production gets turned around into a threat to consumption.

So then, when butchers were going to the Senate and to government investigators, and saying, Hey, we’re getting fleeced here, investigators wanted them to make an argument that they could advance their interest and also not raise the price of beef. They accepted the terms of the debate that Armour had framed, that the meatpackers had framed. The idea of increasing the price of meat [to give the butchers a fairer deal] was just right off the table.

I’m sympathetic to the idea, that beef is part of what people used to define what it was to be successful. The problem, of course, is that an enormously exploitative way of producing our food got baked into the entire system that made that low price in the “success” model possible. And of course, now, we’re seeing the impacts; obviously, for decades we’ve been seeing other kinds of environmental and human costs to it.

Some of the details of how beef got used to signify Americanism were such compelling cultural history—like the story of the “beefsteak,” dinners where wealthy young men ate what you described as “disgusting” quantities of meat and only meat.

Yes, of course beef eating was about being successful, but also in a way, about being a successful man. You see it across the socioeconomic spectrum. So, the labor movement was producing pamphlets advocating for Chinese exclusion, basically saying that American manhood is threatened by bringing in workers who—in their racist terms—could survive on rice. [The title of the 1902 pamphlet by Samuel Gompers and Herman Gutstadt: Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood Vs. Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?]

The beefsteak was a tradition among elite men in the late 19th century, and I believe it’s actually been revived in a few places today. At the time, the idea was that the ideal man was sort of this Teddy Roosevelt type, balancing refinement with a certain amount of savagery. So, like, Teddy Roosevelt could be walking around Harvard, but he could also go and kill a lion. So a beefsteak was a version of that—you get together with the other upwardly mobile men, eat vast quantities of beef, wash it down with lots of beer, and it’s very simply prepared and you get in touch with your primal side.

I have seen a lot of people bring up The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book, in relationship to what’s going on with the coronavirus pandemic and meatpacking plants. It’s really interesting to think that right around that time, when Sinclair was exposing the hazardous conditions in the industry, was also when people were really developing this intense American culture around easily available beef.

But I want to say, I feel a little bit frustrated with the parallel with The Jungle, because the only thing people ever talk about when it comes to that book is the fact that Sinclair meant to evoke public sympathy for laborers but instead freaked people out about sanitation. I feel like the implication is, “It didn’t work then; it won’t work now.”

A couple things about that are interesting. Of course, the kind of stock story about The Jungle is that Upton Sinclair was this great socialist who goes out and “aims for the heart but hits Americans in the stomach”—they don’t end up caring about the workers; they only care about rat feces in their sausage.

But I think in a way, we can actually learn, today, from the success and failure of The Jungle. I think we would be thinking a lot differently in terms of the public conversation about coronavirus in meatpacking plants if there were a fear that we could get sick from our meat. The story is: People mobilize as consumers when things actually affect them personally. That doesn’t give us an answer, but that challenge is repeated today.

Maybe the real story about The Jungle is: It built up a kind of public frenzy that eventually translated into politics and became aligned with an ongoing process of investigation and reform that Teddy Roosevelt’s administration was undertaking. Now, Roosevelt was very skeptical of Sinclair, but maybe that points out to us today that we have to push toward thinking about how to connect what’s going on in meatpacking to a larger politics.

Depressingly, though, one of the takeaways from your book is that the drive to have cheap and safe meat has always overcome every other consideration, in the century-plus that we’ve had cheap and safe meat. In the context of your book, it’s that in the early 20th century, the public was uninterested in whether local butchers were able to keep their jobs, or whether slaughterhouse labor conditions were safe. Any reforms to the system were always ways to get past these moments of stress and get the stream of meat flowing again.

Is that still how you think things are now? Or do you think anything has changed in the politics of it? We are now at one of those moments of friction you talked about where we have a threat to the easy availability of meat.

Well, I’m not too optimistic, but a few things. The point of this conversation and what I’ve been trying to think about lately is that the forces that define modern meatpacking have also created this susceptibility to coronavirus. That is both in terms of the human cost to workers and also in terms of the disruption that is going to happen to the food chain—both are a product of the centralization of everything, the massive size of meat processing plants today.

Then there’s the disruption in supply: Because meat is so personal to defining who so many people in America are, shortages will be felt very acutely. There will be a lot of energy around that.

Now, of course, my book is itself a critique of the very idea of consumer politics. I think its ability to translate those feelings and fears into meaningful or at least productive action is pretty limited. We get angry about prices. We get angry about sanitation. Other things, we don’t always have the energy to worry about or understand what’s going on. We don’t have the ability to change overnight what we like to eat, and what our taste is. So there are real challenges.

Here’s the optimism part. I think since the 1960s and 1970s, people have been talking a bit more about how things we use get produced. I think we’re going to eventually see a moment where something like a nascent labor movement, or a reform movement, could line up with that concern and that thinking.

It’s hard, because any reform will raise food prices, and we will have to think about how to make food more available and more affordable. On the other hand, the thornier the problem, the more opportunity for big changes and transformations. And certainly the signs point to the fact that we’re at a breaking point now.

I worry that all of the power in consumer politics, right now, is aligned with the fear of meat becoming unavailable. And for example, Donald Trump declaring meatpacking “essential” is an example of him recognizing that power. And I think it’s working against us—if by “us,” you mean “people interested in making a change in the industrial meat system.” He can sense that meat being expensive or unavailable would probably be bad for him.

Yes, I hear what you’re saying. Trump is worried because if people go to the store and can’t buy their meat, that really personalizes the pandemic for people who can afford to be insulated from its worst aspects. So he’s trying to prevent that.

But with the structure of the meat processing and packing industry, and it now meeting the reality of the pandemic … I think the reality of the system’s failure is going to be unavoidable for people to see. I originally thought that the sacrifice and exploitation of the meatpacking workforce would keep the system from being disrupted. But the system is fragile and prone to disruption, so increasingly it seems like that’s not going to happen, and there’s going to be a shortage. This can’t be fixed overnight, because this problem is decades in the making.

I think this situation is going to reveal things. Maybe consumer outrage and energy at shortages will be channeled in ways that justify the status quo. But at the very least, this will create a moment where there will be potential. The possibility of change is in the conversation, where it wasn’t before.