Lately I’ve been digging Tom Philphott, a Mother Jones’ Food and Ag columnist. He’s a bit more critical than, say, NYT’s Mark Bittman, and he makes meaningful connections that I don’t see many other food commentators making. I really enjoyed this post on the Meat Industry, a longstanding Big Food Bully (That’s right, BULLY, whose notorious lobbyists are the anti-christ as far as I’m concerned. I digress.) “Enjoyed” probably isn’t the best way to put it, because it unveils a lot of grim realities about wholesale meat. I think it’s a quick, easy to understand version of a much more complicated story: how and why the meat industry is so destructive.
Drawing on a more detailed analysis by Genoways (do yourself a favor and atleast skim this one), he traces the evolution of Big Meat since the 60s, from quality products, to the dissolution of unions, to today’s monstrous system of exploitation, abuse, wide-scale distribution. I wish “monstrous” was an exaggeration, but the human and animal rights abuses that occur under Big Meat’s watch are frankly appalling– there’s hardly any other way to put it. Tom ties it back to the demands of the economy,
All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.
He offers a sharp run-through of the economic strategy (monopsony vs. monopoly) that motivated the transition to the consolidation business model and how it’s profitable. (Disclaimer: this is especially enlightening if you’ve never studied economics.) It helps explain how both suppliers and consumers are getting screwed by Big Food. Big Meat’s demands have gross consequences. The industry’s growth is damaging to many aspects of society.
As these companies lurch along, forever looking to get bigger and cut corners to maintain profitability, society pays a steep price for all the cheap meat they churn out. Genoways nailed how workers fare under our cheap-meat regime. Abuse of animals is routine. Entire ecosystems get trashed, as is the case of the Chesapeake Bay—once one of the globe’s most productive fisheries, brought to near-ruin by runoff from a stunning concentration of factory chicken farms. Family farmers are literally turned into serfs as they scale up to meet the industry’s demands. And we all face the menace of the antibiotic-resistant pathogens now brewing up on animal factory farms, which now consume 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States (both to make livestock grow faster and keep them alive in cramped, filthy conditions).
The consolidation model is a trademark of our food industry. Food monopolies continue to drive unhealthy, unsanitary, and/or unjust conditions in their varied modes of production, while small-scale farmers barely scrape by. A must read, and a strong case for abandoning wholesale meat products altogether.
*Reading this turned me on to some shocking and straight up disturbing facts about the way meat is distributed in our food system. More on that to come.