Maureen Ogle: Michael Pollan doesn’t get the beef business

Historian Maureen Ogle defends the oft-criticized meat industry -- and suggests some foodies have it all wrong

Topics: meat, USDA, Pink Slime, antibiotic resistance, Livestock, chicken, Beef, Books, Editor's Picks, , ,

Maureen Ogle: Michael Pollan doesn't get the beef businessMaureen Ogle (Credit: Cave Henricks Communications)

Much of what you think you know about the meat industry is wrong, says historian Maureen Ogle. Sure, the industry is enormous, but its power is limited by narrow profit margins, an impenetrable bureaucracy and elaborate demands from American consumers.

In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hits the shelves Tuesday. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.

Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Americans eat more meat than almost anywhere else in the world. Would you say we have a unique relationship with meat?

I didn’t do a global study, but I think worldwide, human beings certainly share a passion for meat — vegetarians notwithstanding. Meat is something that human beings like to eat, there’s no doubt about that. And we’re certainly not the first country in the world where governments have tried to make it a priority to make sure there’s plenty of it. Obviously, there are exceptions to that.

One thing that does make a difference for us is that we Americans have access to an extraordinary abundance of land, and have for four centuries. The people who settled North America came from a world where, because there was so little land, food scarcities were common, and meat wasn’t something everyone expected to eat. In what would become the United States, the reverse was true. We just pretty much don’t have food scarcities here, and there was plenty of room to raise livestock, which very quickly became a source of wealth.

And has the desire for meat to be inexpensive and also readily available also been there since day one?

I think so, although now it is much more intentional. During the colonial period, again, because there was so much land, people who never dreamed of having access to meat regularly, or who never thought they could be in a position where they would be able to keep a steer or a cow, were able to do so. So yes, I do think that our sense that, “Yeah, of course we get meat, of course there’s gonna be meat and there’s gonna be a lot of it,” that kind of came built into the whole system.



Americans demonstrated that they wanted to use a great deal of the abundant land available to them to raise livestock, and they have consistently built very efficient systems for distributing the meat from that livestock throughout the entire population. That’s not to say that everybody could equally afford it, but by and large Americans historically have had access to far more meat than anybody else in the world.

So, you call the book “In Meat We Trust” –

That wasn’t my idea [laughs]. This was a title by a committee.

It resonates, but you do show how scandals and health scares tied to meat and the meat industry go pretty far back in history, too.

Right, but again, I think the fact that there have been complaints about the shortage of meat or the high price of meat, to me indicates just how strongly Americans believed that they were entitled to have it. I mention a number of incidents where people stage meat boycotts because they’re furious that the price of meat, that they believe should be within their reach, is not – and they’re more than happy to let people know. They’ve always used governments — local, state and federal — to protect meat supplies, along with all food supplies. But meat, yes indeed — there’s an expectation there.

Could you talk about what you write are unfair representations of meat, going back to “The Jungle” up to Michael Pollan today. What do they get wrong about the meat industry, or seem to be missing from the historical context?

I think what the food reformers – and I need to make it clear, I have a great deal of sympathy with their goals — don’t understand is that the system of providing food is predicated on the fact that the vast majority of Americans don’t make food. They expect someone else to raise it for them. And in the United States, if you live in a city, you absolutely expect there to be lots and lots of food at a reasonable price. For the past century that’s in fact what has driven our economy: the ability to free up spending dollars.

I think food reformers don’t get that the reason they have the luxury of sitting around tapping out critiques on their Apple computers is because they a) don’t have to grow their own food and b) don’t have to spend very much money for the food that they do have.

Companies want to make a profit — only an idiot would [disagree]. And these meat companies, for example, tend to be publicly held, so the share value is being distributed throughout the national economy to individual Americans. But what drives the structure and cost performance of a big meat company had been, for decades and decades, the need to come up with a product that Americans deem acceptable in price, and that is not easy to do.

I’ll use the example of a steer. If you look at a steer, the bulk of the steer is not edible. So the packer has to figure out how to extract the edible part, but then use all the rest of the parts to subsidize the low cost of those edible parts, and that is an incredible balancing act that packers have pulled off over and over again. There is virtually no profit to be made from a carcass of a steer, in terms of the meat that you sell. By the time you pay for the animal, you move the animal, you slaughter the animal, you process the animal, you package the meat, you send the meat — there is no profit in there. So the way you get profit is by organizing your operation to use all the rest of the animal in some way that will yield profit.

The idea that meatpackers are somehow gouging consumers or operating plants in a way to only extract profit is simply nonsense. Any meatpacker will tell you it’s actually a very low-profit operation. If you can make 1 percent, you’re doing really well. The reformers’ critique is that the price of meat in the store doesn’t take into account the environmental cost, and I would agree with that. But what they also don’t understand is that, in effect, meatpacker efficiency is what subsidizes the price of meat in the store. So if you just kind of extract the way livestock is raised, and criticize that, or if you just extract the way slaughterhouses operate, and criticize that, you’re not seeing an entire picture. This entire infrastructure is dedicated toward two goals. One is to earn profit for the processor and the farmer. But the other is to make sure that consumers don’t have to pay more than about 6 percent of their disposable income on meat. That’s not much money.

It would seem like Eldon Roth and the so-called pink slime scandal are the perfect example of that, where something’s good for price, yet consumers couldn’t quite wrap their minds around it.

Yeah, and what a shame that was. I’ll just say that when it comes to the issue of lean finely textured beef (LFTB), or pink slime, the amount of misinformation floating about and being promoted in otherwise respectable news sources was appalling. Jamie Oliver dumping meat into a plastic tub and then pouring a bottle of ammonia over it — that is in no way, shape or form what actually happens in the factory.

So-called pink slime, LFTB – there ain’t nothing in it that is harmful to anybody. It’s meat, pure and simple. All processors are doing is trying to extract every last piece of meat from the bone. But you’re right — consumers couldn’t get their minds around it, because all they kept hearing was, “They’re dumping ammonia into the meat.” Packers were never dumping ammonia into the meat.

But again, we’re so accustomed to having low-cost food, and having food everywhere. I mean, we Americans are surrounded by food. We have food on a scale that the rest of the world is just sort of staggered by. And it’s real easy to take it for granted, and I think that’s what critics and the public in general do. Why should they stop and think about the whole picture? All they care about is getting dinner on the table. But if you stand back and look at the whole picture and take a bunch of factors into account, the whole pink slime thing, in my opinion, was misguided. And frankly, it was a bit tragic for Roth, a guy who’s a self-taught mechanical genius, who built a business, and who was providing a service. All it took was one celebrity chef, on one TV program, and that was the end of that. What a shame.

In the book, you write: “Food reformers had also figured out how to exploit a fundamental fact about most Americans: they don’t live on farms and have never met a farmer.” Do you think this is something that they recognize, and are intentionally doing? Or are they just getting caught up in the hysteria?

I think it’s a mixture of both. I would have been inclined to say that it was not intentional until I got toward the end of the book. Let me give you some background. I’m a historian, so I spent most of my time looking at the distant past. But anybody who’s a historian will tell you that being a historian means you become a little obsessed with the present. My perspective on the present is always from this very elongated view – I tend to look at the present in terms of the past. And so naturally I got very interested in the whole food debate — we’ll just call it that, the “food debate,” — and in particular, as you’re aware, much of the critique in the food debate is aimed at meat, so naturally I paid a lot of attention to it.

I think most people who are running around gabbling at the mouth about how awful monoculture is or whatever, they simply don’t have the whole picture. They’re just parroting things that they read in a book. But I do think sometimes that there are people who have a great deal of power – and I’m going to try to avoid mentioning names – it’s entirely possible that it was intentional for them to present sort of a skewed view. I can’t speak to other people’s motives, though.

And there have been lawsuits to that effect.

Yes, with the pink slime situation. That lawsuit, let’s face it, was kind of ridiculous – I don’t know where it’s at right now but I doubt it’s going to go very far. In that case, proving intentionality would be probably impossible. But when someone – and now I will mention a name – when Marion Nestle, for example, describes pink slime as “dog food,” I mean that just shows either an appalling ignorance on her part of how meat processing works, or it was in fact intentional, to skew the terms of the debate. I don’t know her, so I don’t know which it is. But it doesn’t even matter whether it’s intentional or not, because the end result was, you suddenly had otherwise smart, rational people saying “Oh my god, they’re putting dog food in our kids’ school lunches!” Which wasn’t true. But then you don’t see anybody bothering to correct things like that so… I don’t know, I don’t have an answer to that question.

Do you have a take on what a more realistic ideal to hold the meat industry to could be?

Well, I’m not an analyst of the meat industry in general – again, I need to stress that I’m a historian who’s just come up with some opinions based on seven years of studying a topic. But is there anything that can’t be made more perfect than it is? Probably not, and my impression is that people in the meat industry would be happy to figure out ways to make things better, based on someone’s definition of “better.” And let’s not just gloss over that part – this is a case where you have a lot of people, many of whom have no knowledge of the meat industry, making grand claims about what’s wrong with it and how it can be fixed.

Anybody who works in the meat industry knows it’s just not that simple. Are there ways we can change? Of course. For example, one great complaint is that the USDA doesn’t do a great job of inspecting meat. Well, part of the problem is that the USDA is an incredibly complicated nightmare of a bureaucracy – and it’s of course a political bureaucracy, which makes everything worse. It’s really hard to change an institution like that. It’s not like there’s some big conspiracy; you just have lots of people who would prefer not to have their little outpost of power challenged. And that’s what altering the terms of, say, meat inspection would do.

The other problem with meat inspection, that pretty much nobody ever mentions, is that it’s a moving target. In 1906, when Congress created a federal inspection system, it was predicated entirely on inspecting live animals and weeding out animals that were obviously diseased. At the time, what would happen is those diseased animals would be slaughtered to make sure that there was evidence of disease on the inside as well. But a hundred years later, we have all kinds of tools that nobody even imagined back then. And trying to fit those new tools into an old and very political infrastructure is not easy.

So trying to make changes — it’s really hard to do, particularly because all the time that someone is pushing for reform, a meat packing executive would say, “I don’t think you get that we’re hardly making profit as it is, and every time you change the rules on us, it costs money. And we really can’t pass those costs on to consumers because consumers get pissed off. So tell us what we could do that consumers are willing to pay for.” Everybody’s kind of wanting a free ride here, I think – as a historian, I can just tell you that there are ample examples of Americans getting really upset by even a couple of pennies a pound price increase in certain cuts of meat. And we really do want what we want.

Until Americans say, you know, “Maybe we don’t need 15 kinds of lean pork, maybe we don’t need microwaveable sausages,” then you might get more change. But the tension between what reformers think should happen, the actual reality of what it costs to make low-cost meat so that most households in the United States can afford it, and the regulatory mechanisms attached to it – the whole thing is so complicated. You tell me – short of a dictatorship, someone just saying, “Here’s what we’re gonna do” – making change is a very hard thing.

What about adopting a vegetarian diet, or promoting “Meatless Mondays”? Can just reducing the demand for meat help take off some of these pressures?

Well, yes and no. I’ll give you an example. In the second half of the 1970s, beef consumption just began to plunge. We eat way less beef now than we did then. But we substituted for that chicken – now we eat way more chicken than we ever did beef. So yes, the decline in beef had an impact on cattle ranching, on cattle feeding, on meatpacking. It made it harder for everyone involved to earn money, and when people did want beef, what they wanted was lean beef, highly marbled beef, swanky imported beef from Japan. So even if Americans reduce their demand, there’s still a demand. But it’s not, “Please give me a roast.” No. They want the roast to be low in fat; they want the roast to be a certain size. We place so many demands on packers that, even if demand drops, it’s still hard to give Americans what they want at a price they’re willing to pay.

Vegetarianism is of course nothing new. It was a big fad two hundred years ago, and I don’t know that enough of us are ever going to turn sufficiently vegetarian to suddenly bring the entire meat industry to a halt. I cringe when I hear, particularly livestock producers, saying that calls for the end to gestation stalls are really a plot on the part of vegetarians. I’m pretty sure that vegetarians are not going to take over the world. We’re not going to all be converted to vegetarianism, so that’s kind of a red herring. But even if Americans reduce their demand, it’s still going to be difficult to produce meat.

So a counter-example to that is this: If enough Americans stop eating so-called factory meat – we’ll just call it that for the sake of simplicity – and only eat things like organic, local meat, that will cause a fundamental shift in the industry. But I can’t quite see that happening, because I can’t see that a large enough chunk of the population is going to be willing to spend about $12 a pound on, say, pork tenderloin. $12 to $20, which is what I’ve seen it priced at when it’s organic, local, etc.

So could these shifts in dietary habit alter the industry? Well sure, but what it’s probably going to do is force the industry to be even more creative than it’s ever been to try to meet the demands of a very, very finicky consumer audience. In a way, vegetarianism is just another name for a market niche, right? It’s just yet another consumer demand. I was a vegetarian for 25 years. Probably everyone goes through their “vegetarian phase” at some point in their life. Sure, lots of kids are vegetarians now – fine, great, dandy. But there’s still going to be an enormous demand for low-cost meat.

You write about the use of antibiotics in meat, and some of the early reactions to that. Is that another instance where reactions have been overblown?

You know, that’s a really good question, and if you and I could answer that I think they would probably give both of us a Nobel Prize. The whole thing with antibiotic resistance – and I’m not even going to attempt to weigh in on the science of it, because the one thing I know, from researching 50 years of antibiotic use on the farm, is that nobody really agrees about the impact. My main reason for going into so much detail in the book is that to me, it was a perfect example of a tool that farmers who were facing rising land costs and lack of agricultural labor could use to try to cut their production costs and squeak out a little bit of profit.

Most people who criticize antibiotic use don’t understand where it originated or why. What they think they know, what they believe and what they say, is that big corporations started using antibiotics as a way to make it possible to squeeze a lot of animals into a confinement lot so that they could earn more profit. None of that is true. Confinement was first developed by farmers themselves, not big corporations, and it was simply a response to lack of agricultural labor, rising land prices and soaring demand from the consuming public.

So the whole situation with antibiotics got so mixed up with innuendo, lack of facts, some facts, some science, some pseudoscience. When I’ve asked farmers – cattle ranchers and meat producers alike — in the past six months or so, point-blank, “What do you think is going to happen with antibiotics?,” 100 percent of them say we won’t be able to use them anymore. The end is coming. And they’ll figure out how to get along without them. But I can guarantee you that meat prices will go up, consumers will howl, and then there will be pressure for ranchers, farmers and meatpackers to figure out how to compensate for the lack of antibiotics. I have no idea what they’re going to come up with, or if Americans are just going to have to stop bitching about the high price of meat and pay the price. But it’s clear that pressure on the subject of antibiotics, despite being grossly uninformed, is clearly having an impact, for better or worse.

Is there anything else you want to make sure people know?

I’m an observer. I’m not out there manning the barricades. I don’t have any money on the table in this. I really am – believe it or not – a neutral observer of the whole situation. I would love to have a world where everything is perfect, and gosh we have so-called family farms (there’s a term that I seriously wish people would stop using, since nobody seems to know what it means). I wrote the book because I was curious about meat and how it related to me as an American. Having written the book and learned something, I think it would be great if people would read the book and use it to inform the dialogue in the food debate. That’s all I’m really hoping for. That and maybe a place on the bestseller list.

But what I can hope is that maybe people who read the Sustainability section at Salon will say, “Gee, maybe this situation is way more complicated than I thought. Maybe these simplistic answers – Shop at a farmer’s market! Slaughter animals on the farm! Raise them naturally and organically! – maybe it’s not that simple. That’s the big takeaway for me. Maybe it’s all just not quite as easy as the critics seem to think it is.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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