This is why you crave beef: Inside secrets of Big Meat's billion-dollar ad and lobbying campaigns

Lobbyists, contributions, subsidies, PR, advertising: Beef is what's for dinner because we're well-conditioned

Published April 3, 2016 3:59PM (EDT)

Ronald McDonald   (AP/Dennis Cook)
Ronald McDonald (AP/Dennis Cook)

Excerpted from "Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat"

Sleek seems like a good word to describe the offices of the National Chicken Council (NCC) in Washington, D.C. The sleekness begins on the street. The building at 1152 Fifteenth Street, which houses the NCC, is ultramodern, enclosed in glass, with a lavish lobby that echoes my footsteps as I walk in. Up on the fourth floor, I’m greeted by NCC’s senior vice president Bill Roenigk—a jovial man who looks exactly like a “Bill.” Roenigk leads me into a conference room where we sit at a large, oval table. Even though there are some vintage photos of farmers on the walls, the whole place feels much more “consulting” than “farming.”

The NCC, just like its beef and pork equivalents (the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Board), is a trade association of meat producers. These organizations protect the interests of the industry, deal with PR crises, lobby the government, and arrange marketing campaigns. But at its core, their goal is rather simple: make sure Americans buy as much chicken, beef, and pork as possible. In other countries, similar organizations exist: the British Meat Processors Association, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and so on. Such organizations, together with powerful meat companies such as Tyson Foods or JBS, spend billions of dollars a year on lobbying and promotion so that we don’t lose our appetites for animal protein. Some researchers argue that increasing meat consumption around the globe, the U.S. included, is not demand driven but supply driven: it’s pushed more by the actions of the meat industry and not so much by the desires of our taste buds. The industry doesn’t exactly pretend otherwise, either. As the cattlemen’s magazine Beef admitted in 2013: “The beef industry has worked hard to create the love affair that Americans have with a big, juicy ribeye.”

The meat industry is capable of swinging our food preferences because it is ultrapowerful and ultraconsolidated. Consider these numbers: in 2011, in the U.S. alone, the annual sales of meat were worth $186 billion. That’s more than the GDP of Hungary or Ukraine. Moreover, just four pork producers control two-thirds of the market, and the top four in beef have about 75 percent of the market. Tyson, the largest meat corporation in the U.S., recently had a revenue of $34 billion—that’s over twenty times as much as the GDP of Belize.

Other companies besides those that raise, slaughter, and sell meat benefit from consumers’ carnivorous appetites: the fertilizer and pesticide producers, farm equipment manufacturers, seed growers (including Monsanto), soy and corn farmers, and pharmaceutical corporations, which sell antibiotics, beta-adrenergic agonists, and other drugs to the meat companies. In a way, they are all part of the meat business too. According to the American Meat Institute, the industry’s primary trade organization: “Meat and poultry industry impacts firms in all 509 sectors of the U.S. economy. . . . The meat and poultry industry’s economic ripple effect generates $864.2 billion annually to the U.S. economy, or roughly 6 percent of the entire GDP.”

Compared to the meat industry, the vegetable and fruit industry has little clout. For one thing, if the name “vegetable and fruit industry” sounds odd, that’s because such an expression is almost never used. The vegetable and fruit industry hardly exists as a united entity. In North America or the UK, only about five different types of meat really count in terms of sales: beef (including veal), pork, chicken, turkey, and lamb or mutton. Now think of all the different kinds of veggies, fruits, beans, and lentils out there. Or just consider the varieties of beans grown and sold in the U.S.: pinto, navy, black, great northern, garbanzo, red kidney, lima, yellow eye, fava, mung, adzuki, marrow, appaloosa, anasazi.

The list goes on. Do lima bean producers want you to eat more lima beans? Of course they do. But they not only have to compete with garbanzo bean producers but also with other bean, pea, lentil, and vegetable growers. In a similar fashion, apples go up against peaches, blueberries against cherries. Even if the fruit and vegetable producers did unite, their sales would still be much smaller than those of the meat industry: in 2011, for example, all vegetables, fruits, and nuts combined made just over $45 billion in farm cash receipts. That’s almost four times less than the livestock products earned. Beans, peas, and lentils—which are considered proper meat substitutes—fare even worse. In 2011 they made a staggering 140 times less than livestock products. Who has the power to convince you to love their foods and to eat more and more of them? Not the chickpea industry, that’s for sure.

To make certain you keep eating meat, the industry levies almost a tax on products sold, known as beef and pork checkoffs. In the U.S. each beef producer pays $1 per bovine head at the time the animal is sold, and each pork producer foots $0.40 per $100 of value. In Canada, the levy is $1 per animal head, and in Australia, it’s $5 a head. Between 1987 and 2013, the U.S. beef checkoff collected $1.2 billion, an impressive pile of money that is used “to increase domestic and/or international demand for beef ”—in the words of the industry itself. To give you some perspective: one of the very few campaigns drafted to promote eating veggies, 5 A Day for Better Health, developed by the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, had in 1999 a public communications budget of less than $3 million.

When Americans ask, “What’s for dinner?,” most will automatically reply: “Beef.” That’s hardly a surprise. Back in 1992 the industry spent $42 million of beef checkoff money spreading the slogan “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” As for its effectiveness, consider this quote from the industry’s own website: “In the minds of the many consumers hearing that question [‘What’s for dinner?’], a dominant answer has been planted: Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. Not just planted, in fact. Watered, nourished and cared for over the past two decades.” In 2015 the beef industry was planning to spend $39 million of checkoff revenues on promotion and research, “consumer public relations,” “nutrition-influencer relations," and countering “misinformation from anti-beef groups.” One of the checkoff websites,, is full of ideas on how to make people buy (and eat) more beef. Some examples: organizing cooking demonstrations on university campuses and student contests, providing in-store samplings of easy beef recipes, and employing influential chefs.

Yet it’s the youngest consumers that the meat industry is particularly keen to hook on burgers and drumsticks. In their marketing effort, for example, they design “beef education” curriculums for K–12 classrooms. They are especially eager to attract Millennials, born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. To encourage them to eat more burgers and steaks, beef promoters share recipes on Facebook and use Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, where they post pictures of “delicious beef meals.” They create apps and online resources: these, according to an industry marketing how-to guide, are “a must-have to attract and retain Millennials’ interest.”

These campaigns pay dividends. Between 2006 and 2013, every dollar dropped into the beef checkoff ’s piggybank returned over eleven dollars to the industry. If it wasn’t for the checkoff, the industry has calculated that we would be eating 11.3 percent less beef. Meanwhile, the pork industry’s “The Other White Meat” tagline is the fifth-most recognized ad slogan in the history of American advertising (the first being Allstate Insurance Company “You’re in Good Hands”). During the five years following the campaign’s kickoff in 1987, sales of pork shot up 20 percent. As C. W. Post, founder of General Foods, reportedly once said about cereal—but it could easily be said about meat: “You can’t just manufacture cereal. You’ve got to get it halfway down the customer’s throat through advertising. Then they’ve got to swallow it.”

Checkoff programs are successful not only because they are large but also because the promotional messages of the meat industry are, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, “government speech.” These are not your typical marketing campaigns; they have the blessing of the government. The USDA actually reviews the promotional messages prepared by checkoffs. As David Robinson Simon writes in his book "Meatonomics": “It may say it’s the National Pork Board, but the background sounds you’re hearing are the imposing bass tones of the U.S. government . . . a lack of government involvement would likely lead to the decline—or maybe the end—of checkoffs.”

Although the American poultry industry doesn’t have a checkoff program, it still works hard to increase the demand for chicken and turkey. As Bill Roenigk explained to me, leaning back in his chair in the polished conference room of the NCC, meat demand is like a large dog, just sitting there, pretty immobile. But this dog also has a rather big tail. Good promotion and advertising is like grabbing this tail and wag-wag-wagging the dog as hard as you can. “So how do chicken producers wag the dog?” I ask. Roenigk laughs. “Social media campaigns are big at the moment,” he tells me. “We are making September the ‘Eat Chicken Month,’ for example.”

Yet generic promotion by meat producers—whether of beef, pork, or chicken—is just a part of the story of how publicity keeps us craving meat. Meat vendors, such as restaurants, also play a large part. Take McDonald’s. Although it’s not a meat company per se, McDonald’s is the largest beef buyer not only in the U.S. but in other countries, too (Ireland, for example). Selling on average about seventy-five burgers per second across the globe, McDonald’s plays a large role in our ongoing love affair with meat. In 2011 it spent a whopping $1.37 billion on advertising. There are only thirty-six companies in the U.S. that shell out upward of $1 billion a year on ads (think GM, Google, Apple). And no, veggie and fruit producers didn’t make the list, unless you count Unilever with its soups and ketchup. And guess which ads appear most frequently on children’s Saturday morning television? Number one: McDonald’s. Number two: Burger King. The only figure that American kids recognize better than Ronald McDonald is Santa Claus.

Selling meat with advertising comes with a few simple rules of thumb. “Don’t show animals” is a major one. A study done in Europe found out that it’s better to avoid using any photos or even drawings of cows, pigs, or chickens, no matter how cute. “Rather to make the consumer reflect about the living animal, communication should be centered on other attributes linked to the hedonic sides of meal preparation and consumption,” write the authors. And that is why you won’t see many animals in meat ads. In other words: They don’t want you to think about the animal too much or you may lose your appetite. But advertising, no matter how successful, is not the only way to ensure that demand for meat doesn’t go down; there is lobbying, too.

Just one block away from the offices of the NCC is K Street: a stately line of heavy-looking buildings, among them steak houses and banks. There is nothing frilly on K Street, nothing cute, hipster, or kiddie friendly. It’s a street of coffee-wielding suit-clad people, all in a rush. Consultants, lawyers, and, most of all, lobbyists—so many of the latter work here that K Street has been dubbed “the lobbyists’ boulevard.” Lobbying, as Roenigk tells me, is something that the NCC is now “focusing on.” It’s perfectly legal, of course, and involves arranging campaign contributions, encouraging lawsuits, and organizing public-relations campaigns—all to influence government policy. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that during the 2013 election cycle, the animal products industry contributed $17.5 million to federal candidates. And such contributions appear to work. One study confirmed that changes in contributions do change voting behavior and that you can basically “‘buy’ legislators’ votes” without breaking the law.

One thing that the meat industry would rather not lose (and would likely lobby intensely for if they were to) is government subsidies. According to Chuck Conner, deputy secretary of agriculture, producers of fresh fruits and vegetables “have traditionally been under-represented in farm bill policy.” Meanwhile, between 1995 and 2012 , American taxpayers helped pay $4.1 billion in livestock subsidies. It’s a big number, but in reality what animal food producers actually receive—indirectly—is far more than that. The author of "Meatonomics" calculated that each year the U.S. spends $38 billion to subsidize meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Why is that number so much higher than the official livestock subsidies? One reason is feed grain subsidies. From 1995 to 2012, corn producers pocketed over $84 billion, and soybean growers $27 billion—which makes it considerably cheaper to buy corn and soybeans than to grow them. Since 60 percent of the corn and almost half of the soybeans that sprout from American soil are used for feeding livestock, subsidizing these crops is, to a large extent, tantamount to subsidizing the meat industry—and encouraging meat consumption.

If it wasn’t for subsidies, we would be paying considerably more for our steaks and drumsticks. That would quite likely dampen our love affair with meat. “NCC did a study a couple of years ago,” Roenigk tells me. “If you take the price of chicken and consumers’ income, these two factors can explain 90 percent of why we eat more or less chicken.” Imagine if beef prices were to go up 10 percent, would you buy less? Switch to chicken? Studies show that on average, a 10 percent increase in beef ’s price means about a 7.5 percent decrease in consumption. And then the demand for pork rises 3 percent and for chicken 2.4 percent—so it’s bye-bye beef stew, hello chicken fajitas. However, some consumers, when faced with a higher bill at the butcher’s, end up cutting down on meat altogether. In one NCC survey, 35 percent of shoppers said that when chicken prices increase, they just eat more veggies.

But the government is not the only entity subsidizing the meat industry. There are hidden costs to meat production that, instead of being paid by producers, are paid by taxpayers as part of what some call “subsidies by omission,” and these costs are quite substantial. Neal Barnard, professor of medicine at George Washington University, calculated that, in 1992, direct health-care costs attributable to meat eating in the U.S. were over $61 billion—from hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and so on. In "Meatonomics," Simon estimates that external costs of the animal food industry add up to at least $414 billion yearly—not only in health care but also in environmental costs such as pollution. For every dollar of beef or chicken sold, Simon argues, the industry imposes $1.70 of externalities on us. (In economics, an externality is a cost that affects a party that did not choose to incur that cost and which is not reflected in the cost of the goods.) So the next time you buy $10 worth of steak think about this: you are in reality paying $27 for it, just in installments— part at the checkout counter, part with your taxes, part with your health insurance.

What all such meat subsidies mean in practice is that for many Americans who struggle to make ends meet, buying a few burgers at McDonald’s is often a cheaper way to feed the family than serving them lentil dal and a fresh salad. They may be eating meat simply because it’s relatively low cost and readily available. As far as the meat industry goes, that’s perfectly fine, of course. They want to keep the subsidies flowing and the externalities external. What they don’t want is for the government to promote a plant-based diet.

On June 3, 2013, a seemingly trivial sign appeared at one of the food stations in the white expanse of the Longworth cafeteria—the bright, open space located in the same building as the offices of the House Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C. It’s here on workdays around noon that a long line of staffers forms: members of Congress and lobbyists await their turn to grab lunch. On that particular Monday, many of them spotted a new sign advertising one of the food options. The sign, supposedly placed by one of the cafeteria’s employees, simply said: “Meatless Monday.”

That was enough for the meat industry to raise an outcry. On June 7, the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, a group that includes some of the nation’s largest farm and ranch organizations, issued a statement to the House Administration Committee, protesting the appearance of the sign. In their letter, they wrote: “‘Meatless Mondays’ is an acknowledged tool of animal rights and environmental organizations who seek to publicly denigrate U.S. livestock and poultry production.” On the following Monday, June 10, the “Meatless Monday” sign at the Longworth cafeteria was gone. It has never appeared again.

There is much more to the meat industry’s pressure on the government than a disappearing “Meatless Monday” sign, of course. As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, has stressed, the meat industry has, in recent years, won the major battles. One of those battles has been over the Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines, according to the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which jointly publish them every five years, “provide authoritative advice . . . about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices . . . to promote overall health.” Nestle has a different definition of the Dietary Guidelines, though.

In her book "Food Politics," she writes: “Dietary guidelines are political compromises between what science tells us about nutrition and what is good for the food industry.” Among the words and phrases that the meat industry doesn’t like are “eat less,” as in, “eat less meat.” Over the years the standard word used by the Dietary Guidelines has been choose (“choose lean meat”) instead of “eat less.” Choose doesn’t bother the industry as much because it encourages people to go out and buy more chicken or less fatty beef. Another standard tactic is to point a finger at particular nutrients but not the foods that contain them. So it’s “no” to cholesterol and fat but silence about fatty meats. On the first day of her job working on the editorial production of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, back in the 1980s, Nestle was given clear rules. She recalls: “No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend ‘eat less meat’ as a way to reduce intake of saturated fat. . . . When released in 1988, the Surgeon General’s Report recommended ‘choose lean meats.’”

How is the meat industry able to put so much pressure on the Dietary Guidelines committees and the USDA? The first issue lies with the function of the USDA itself—and goes back to the establishment of the department in 1862. Since its very beginnings, the USDA has had two roles: one was to help the industry achieve a reliable food supply and sell more products and the second was to advise Americans on their diets. And here is the problem. Today—as opposed to the nineteenth century when undernutrition was the challenge—those two roles just don’t fit together well. The USDA has a conflict of interest at its very core.

The second issue also concerns conflicts of interest, but this time among members of the committees drafting dietary recommendations. Over the years, some guidelines committee members received grant supports from the National Live Stock and Meat Board, served on the grant review committee for the American Meat Institute, or had their research supported by the National Dairy Council—to name but a few. And then there is the phenomenon of revolving doors: industry people changing careers to become government people, and vice versa. Examples? Dale Moore, chief of staff to Ann Veneman, the secretary of agriculture, was formerly the executive director for legislative affairs of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Deputy Secretary James Moseley co-owned a large factory farm in Indiana. USDA director of communications Alisa Harrison used to be NCBA’s executive director of public relations, while NCBA’s former president, JoAnn Smith, got appointed as chief of USDA’s Food Marketing and Inspection Division. The list goes on.

There is one more place where meat-industry-related conflicts of interest pop up: scientific research. If you scroll down to the author disclosure sections of research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, in some of them you may discover that the scientists behind the study received funding from the meat industry. For example, the author of one 2012 analysis, which praises beef as a great source of protein, “has been paid by the Beef Checkoff . . . to provide consulting services.” The author of yet another research paper, published in 2014, and claiming that lean beef has benefits for cardiovascular health, “received grant funds from the Beef Checkoff Program.” Sometimes the connections may be pretty obscure. A Swedish study, which is often quoted as proof that vegetarian diets are unhealthy, was supported by a grant from the benign-sounding Swedish Nutrition Foundation. But if you go to the foundation’s website, you may find out that there are several meat and dairy businesses among its “member companies,” including McDonald’s. Besides sponsoring scientists directly, the meat industry sponsors organizations promoting good nutrition. Tyson Foods, the California Beef Council, and the Texas Beef Council, among others, give money to the American Heart Association. The American Dietetic Association Foundation receives funds from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and so does the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation.

Of course, the fact that someone receives funding from the meat industry doesn’t automatically mean that his or her research will be skewed to cheer the consumption of meat. But it may. In 2013 editors of several scientific journals, including the prestigious BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal ), announced that they will no longer accept studies funded by the tobacco industry. The editors wrote that although some may say that funding doesn’t equal endorsement, such a view “ignores the growing body of evidence that biases and research misconduct are often impossible to detect.”

Excerpted from "Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat" by Marta Zaraska. Published by Basic Books. Copyright © 2016 Marta Zaraska. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Marta Zaraska

Marta Zaraska is a Polish-Canadian journalist whose science writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Scientific American, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, and New Scientist, among others.

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