Have you ever wondered how your steak
got to the table? How it was raised? The cost of goods, the chain of supply? While
many people prefer to imagine the classic old MacDonald story, the reality
is that raising animals for food has drastically changed, and over the last
half-century, meat has gotten corporate. Over the past 50 years, the meat industry
has funnelled in two directions – it’s big business, but that business is now owned
by only a handful of companies. The key players in the meat business are
American conglomerates such as Tyson, JBS, and Cargill. Brazilian company BRF, and
European company Vion – whose collective annual revenues average about 223 billion dollars. Over the years, these companies have
bought out smaller businesses and arranged a conglomerate of brands to
handle all aspects of meat production. They control the global meat market from
processing and packaging to managing the world’s meat supply chain. To give you an
idea of how this breaks down, familiar beef brands like 5-star Beef,
Blue-Ribbon Angus Beef, and greener sounding brand Cedar River Farms Natural
Beef are all owned by JBS. “It means we need to sell it right, making sure that the
customer is getting what they want, when they want it.” Smithfield owns brands such
as Nathan’s Famous, Cooks, Eckrich, Healthy Ones, and Farmland. And food giant Cargill is owner to Shadybrook Farms, Angus Pride, Fairview Farms, and Sterling Silver. How did it all happen? Meat has been part of the human
diet for 2.6 million years, but the rise of factory farming is still relatively new. Advancements of the American Railroad
system, that occurred between the 1870s and the 1930s, allowed
the meat industry to grow rapidly. “Here the entire herd will be loaded at one
time, and transported to market as a single expedited shipment.” Trains made it possible to ship refrigerated meat across the country without worrying
about spoilage. “Livestock trains operating on fast
schedules supply efficient transportation at a time when hours may be profits.” Meatpacking facilities streamlined their processes, assigning one task per worker. It was no longer a task left to just butchers. Industrialization allowed the
meat industry to scale up fast and a global market emerged. In 1906, journalist
Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” exposed the unsanitary working
conditions in the meat packing industries of New York and Chicago. “Laws could state that certain protocol must always be followed, but all the
slaughterhouse has to do is make sure that things look good when the inspector
stops by.” The government initially dismissed the claims as intentionally misleading and false but public pressure led to the passage of the Meat
Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act that year. Still, despite efforts to protect the quality of meat, large corporations began buying out small farm
operations. Due to decreased competition, farmers were forced to conform to
standards set by parent companies, leading family farms to accept lower
prices while struggling to meet new standards for which animals to raise, and
how. Early industrial farms and increased commodification of animal bodies began
to emerge, in a bid to increase profits – packing 20,000 chickens into a warehouse
is more economical than purchasing enough land for them to roam free-range. The 1948 short documentary film “The Chicken of Tomorrow” explores the history of the factory farmed egg and poultry industries. Chickens were bred to lay more than 10 times the eggs they would lay naturally. “Breeders have achieved great results in boosting the egg output of the average hen. Today’s hen average is 154 eggs per year.” Birds were genetically engineered to have more meat on their bodies, with bigger breasts,
wings, and legs for the sake of meat production. “The chicken of tomorrow – a
broad-breasted bird with bigger drumsticks, plumper thighs, and layers of
white meat like the wax model on the right.” Farmers began fattening up cattle
and injecting them with growth hormones to keep up with the demand for meat. In
the 1960s, this type of factory farming became the norm. Scientists soon realized
that there would be no way to feed the rapidly growing population while raising
animals for meat the same way. “The cattle industry has welcomed new nutritional
developments that lead to improved quality beef – an opportunity for better
profits.” There simply wouldn’t be enough land to meet the growing demand. Today,
99% of animal products in the U.S. come from factory farms. Animals are kept in
windowless sheds, tens of thousands crammed into small spaces to keep up
with production demands. And the world’s appetite for meat hasn’t slowed down. In
2018, Americans ate an average of 222.2 pounds of meat per person.
Domestic meat production surpassed 1 billion pounds for the first time ever.
People in industrial countries around the world eat an average of 176 pounds per person, according to World Watch Data. According to the FAO, the world produced a record high of 335 million tons of meat in 2018. Federal funding has helped keep
industrial animal agriculture alive. The U.S. government paid 38 billion dollars in
subsidies to the meat and dairy industries in 2016, less than half of that was allocated for fruit and vegetable farmers. In his 2013 book “Meatonomic$” author David Simon writes: Each year,
American taxpayers dish out 38 billion dollars to subsidize meat, fish, eggs and
dairy. To put this corporate welfare package in perspective, it’s nearly half
the total unemployment benefits paid by all 50 U.S. states to unemployed workers
in 2012.” Meat isn’t cheap though. Subsidies have made it become so readily
available and affordable. You might say meat comes with hidden costs. The
government helps keep costs for water, feed, and land low. There are also health-related costs. Animals are raised in ways that breed antibiotic resistant diseases
that go on to affect humans. The World Health Organization has warned that
“we’re in a post-antibiotic era where something as benign as a scraped knee
could be deadly because of the antibiotic resistance now rampant thanks
to livestock production.” Diets heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs have also been
linked to a growing number of chronic health issues like heart disease, type 2
diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. “The subsidies damage our country’s health
and increase the medical cost that will ultimately need to be paid to treat the
effects of the obesity epidemic,” a 2012 report from the U.S. Public Interest
Research Group, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization, concluded.
“Taxpayers are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.” And then there’s the planet. Experts have identified animal agriculture as one of
the chief drivers of climate change. In order to sustain a Western diet, we need
to grow 3x the amount of crops to feed animals raised for food than if
we all just eat plants. While governments across the world have begun adopting
plans to reduce carbon emissions in the wake of the Paris agreement, the U.S.
lags behind, and is invested instead in protecting the meat and dairy
industries. In states like Alabama and Iowa, Confined Animal Feeding Operations,
aka factory farms, are exempt from reporting their greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite reports that livestock production accounts for as much as 51% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. How much should meat dairy and
eggs really cost? The average family would pay an additional $275 on their weekly grocery bill, if consumers paid for the
true cost of animal products. At Burger King, a box of 20 chicken nuggets cost
just $5 and contains 870 calories. A standard meal at McDonald’s
consisting of a Big Mac, large fries, and a soda contains 1,350 calories – more than
half of the average 2,000 calorie diet for only $6. But, it’s high in saturated fat which has been linked to heart disease. Fast food is popular for a few reasons – it’s fast, of course, but it’s also cheap,
and because it’s calorie-dense, flavorful, and you can find a restaurant just about
anywhere you go, it’s no surprise Americans and the world are addicted to
fast food meals. The fast food industry, just like meat, eggs and dairy, has been helped along by clever marketing efforts: “But now with the Philly cheesesteak on a
burger I get all the love and hold the hate.” Anncr: “Looks like you’ve learned to make
great chicken.” The Colonel: “Only way to serve our customers right.” Decades of advertising have cemented sayings like “Where’s the beef?” in popular culture. (indistinct phone conversation) Woman 1: “Talk to the manager.”
Woman 2: “It is the manager.” Woman 3: “Where’s the beef?” Even kids aren’t immune. In some ways they’re more susceptible to marketing prowess. “When I’m 10, I wanna eat
Deluxe Sandwiches just like you.” Michael Jordan: “That’s pretty ambitious.” Now at McDonald’s, try our Deluxe Sandwiches with a grown-up taste, and collect these
fun Looney Toons stuffed characters from the movie “Space Jam.” Many fast food restaurants associate their food with positivity by offering toys with kids
meals that can inspire a lifelong relationship with unhealthy food. (title) Disease Outbreaks According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600 million people – nearly 1 in 10 – fall ill each year, and an estimated 420 thousand die as a result of eating contaminated food. When outbreaks happen they’re
typically big, as the meat industry is dominated by large-scale producers and
contamination can affect millions and millions of pounds of animal products at
a time. In 2018, JBS recalled 12 million pounds of beef due to a salmonella
outbreak. “So many of us have ground beef in our refrigerators and our freezers,
and tonight the State Health Department confirms that beef linked to a West
Valley plant has sickened 42 people across Arizona, and it’s prompting the
feds to expand the recall to a staggering 12 million pounds of beef.” According to data provided by the CDC, it resulted in 246 cases of salmonella
poisoning and 59 hospitalizations in 25 states. Thankfully there were no deaths.
There’s also mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or
BSE – a neurodegenerative disease that occurs in cattle that eventually leads
to loss of all motor functions. The time span between infection and onset of
symptoms is 4 to 5 years, so it can be tough to spot symptoms. A human
version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or
vCJD, is believed to be passed on from eating beef contaminated with central
nervous system tissue such as the brain or spinal tissue. The first human case
was reported in 1996. The enw strain of the disease was identified in the CJD
surveillance unit in Scotland. What was significant was that the victims were
much younger than any previously known. These are the characteristic holes in
the brain of a CJD victim, and this is the much greater damage
caused by the new strain of the disease.” vCJD causes damage to the brain over
time, including tingling in the hands and feet, dementia, mobility issues, psychotic behavior, or coma. There have been a few outbreaks,
mainly in the UK. Living close to a factory farm also negatively affects
community health. In 2018, floodwaters from Hurricane Florence caused more
damage to North Carolina hog farms, in more than two decades. It resulted not
only in the death of more than 5,000 animals, but several dozen waste lagoons
overflowed, contaminating the waterways. “And there are still 62 of these factory
swine operations storing more than 200 million gallons of animal waste
generated each year.” The spilled waste put residents at risk for coming into
contact with salmonella, insecticides, and pharmaceuticals. The World Health
Organization also classifies red and processed meat as carcinogens, which goes
against the long history of U.S. lobby groups pushing for the promotion of meat
consumption. (Title) Industry Influences The meat lobby is one of the most influential groups in Washington. In 2014, lobbyists spent more than 4 million
dollars lobbying Congress. Gun control lobbyists spent less than half that
amount. The group’s aim to protect the meat industry by seeking government
support, subsidies, and tax regulations over production and processing. “Meat and eggs help the body grow, and make it strong. Meat is good for you, and there
many kinds.” Public documents such as the USDA’s Food Guide are heavily influenced
by meat lobbyists. In 1991, the food pyramid was redone to emphasize more
meat and dairy consumption. A New York University Department of Nutrition
peer-reviewed paper notes that “federal dietary advice has evolved from decrease
your consumption of meat, to have two or three daily servings.” This pressure from
the animal agriculture industry dates back to the 1970s. In U.S. public schools, it’s required to give children milk at lunchtime. The
dairy industry recently revitalized its “Got Milk” campaign in order to encourage
kids to drink more milk, as sales of dairy-free milk are quickly outpacing
traditional dairy products. Kid 1: “Thanks Carla.” Kid 2: “Well, gotta run. I got scout’s straight into Taekwondo.” Kid 2: “I’m so slammed today. Later!” Anncr: “Milk – because being a kid is tough.” Several agriculture heavy states have
implemented AG gag laws which punish whistleblowers for exposing the violence
within the industry via video and audio footage. According to Mercy for Animals, seven states currently have AG gag laws in
place: Missouri, Arkansas, Montana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and North Carolina.
28 states total have attempted to pass laws. Meat and dairy lobbyists are now
turning their attention to plant-based meat. According to reason.com, the U.S.
Cattlemen’s Association is appalled that new forms of protein are being sold
under names such as “Beyond Beef” and “Impossible Burger.” “In times of crisis, lobbying increases,” Craig Hoffman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen said. “When policy problems arise, special interests will double down on
their lobbying campaigns.” The group is now lobbying to ban words such as meat,
burger, or beef on plant-based products due to the latter’s increased market
share. Lobbyists are now leveraging lawmakers to stifle the rising vegan
meat market. Mississippi passed a law supported by the state’s Cattlemen’s
Association, preventing vegan meat burgers, and sausages, and more from being
called “meat,” claiming that it will avoid confusing consumers. The Plant-Based
Foods Association, the only trade organization for vegan brands and vegan
food companies, filed a lawsuit to stop the ban, calling the law violation of
First Amendment rights. “It’s really the consumers that are going to lose out by
having to change these words in a way that they won’t understand,” said Daniel
Stockman, founder of plant-based meat brand Upton’s naturals and
PBFA member. “This is really a protectionist move on the part of the
meat industry to do whatever they can to try to squash our progress.” A similar law was just passed in Arkansas and is already receiving pushback from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union for being unconstitutional. The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of old school vegan brand Tofurky. “The act is a restriction
on commercial speech that prevents companies from sharing truthful and
non-misleading information about their products ,” says the lawsuit. “It does
nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information,
instead it creates consumer confusion where none existed before in order to
impede competition.” Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming have all introduced similar laws. These instances aren’t the first time the meat and dairy industries have sought to restrict plant-based alternatives in the
market. In the late 1800s, dairy lobbyists pushed the Margarine Act which bogged
manufacturers down with the restrictive tax and prohibited licensing fees. Some
states even banned its sale outright. Governor Lucius Hubbard of Minnesota
called the vegetable-based oil spread an “abomination of depraved human genius.”
Laws in the early 1900’s called for margarine to be dyed pink to avoid
confusion with butter, but they were overturned by the Supreme Court on the
grounds that it’s illegal to enforce the adulteration of food. Lobbyists have also
come for dairy-free ice cream. The 1951 ice cream Chill-Zert was seized by the
USDA which claimed it should be labeled “imitation chocolate dessert.” The brand
fought back state-by-state and won the right to label its confection “ice cream.” (Title) A Changing Economy While animal agriculture lobbyists push for
restrictive labeling laws, changes are happening in the 90 billion dollar meat
business. One of the biggest disruptors is
California-based brand Beyond Meat. It became the first vegan meat brand to go
public earlier this year, resulting in the biggest first-day IPO in nearly two
decades. The company is known for its realistic bleeding burger, the Beyond
Burger. “We’re trying to have meat-eaters eat Beyond Meat because that’s how we’re
going to change the world.” Which available at Carl’s Jr., Del Taco… “Tastes like meat, it’s awesome.” “Even though I’m a meathead, I would totally eat these all day.” …A&W Canada, and Tim Hortons. Its new vegan breakfast sausage launched in NYC Dunkin’
locations in July, with plans to go national. “They’re even handing out free samples of Beyond Meat egg and cheese sandwiches to
everybody who walks in. They’re like super pumped about the rollout and everything.” Dunkin’s CEO David Hoffman spoke to CNBC: “We co-created something that was very
proprietary just for Dunkin’. We worked and we did that together, and hey look I
think this is gonna be a partnership for years to come.” Beyond Meat also had a significant impact on how vegan meat is marketed. “I think where we start as a company is a recognition that we are in the business
of enabling people to continue to eat what they love, but we believe that it
can be a transition from a animal-based meat to a plant-based meat. The Beyond Burger was the first plant-based meat to be sold along traditional beef in
grocery stores. This paved the way for the placement of other brands to market
in the meat case. The brand hopes to expand its product lineup to include
vegan bacon and steak. Due to its success, analysts predict that the vegan meat
market could be worth 41 billion dollars within the next decade.
Impossible Foods is making similar strides. The Bay Area brands plant-based
meat is available in mainstream restaurant chains including White Castle,
the Mexican inspired QDOBA, Umami Burger, and at Burger King as a whopper option. “If it’s not beef, I don’t want it. After the first bite I would know the difference between beef and whatever
else you have.” Anncr: “Little do they know their whopper patty was actually made from
plants. “Wait, what are you talkin’ bout?” Anncr: “No animals, just plants.” The brand has raised more than
750 million dollars and has a growing list of celebrity supporters including
Jay-z, Katy Perry, Jaden Smith, and Serena Williams. Non-vegan brands are also staking a claim in the burgeoning plant-based meat
market. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, is turning its attention to
creating new vegan products. It recently launched the Incredible Burger under its
Garden Gourmet brand in Europe. The realistic plant-based patty is now
available in McDonald’s Germany and Israel with plans to potentially expand
distribution to other countries. It is currently looking into developing vegan
chicken, sausage, and bacon. CEO Mark Schneider told CNBC: “So, we are deeply interested in the plant-based
food area. I think we have a lot to show in this
area and this was one of the key points.” Smithfield, the world’s largest pork
producer, recently announced its first vegan range called Pure Farmland. The new
line mimics the realistic look and texture of the Beyond Burger, featuring
burgers, meatballs, breakfast patties and ground beef. Smithfield Foods has come
under fire for its hog farms. Undercover drone footage in 2014 exposed massive
manure lagoon runoff linked to widespread air and water pollution in
North Carolina. But a shift toward the burgeoning vegan meat category could
help the brand pivot away from questionable practices. Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest packaged meat company, acquired vegan brands Lightlife Foods
and Field Roast in 2017, claiming that it plans to become a leader of
sustainable protein. Earlier this year, Lightlife launched vegan burgers,
sausages, and ground beef to help meet the rising demand for plant-based food. “You expect them to be juicy and delicious. What you may not expect is
that the new Lightlife burger is made from plants.” Poultry giant Tyson Foods
was initially an investor in Beyond Meat. It sold its stake ahead of Beyond Meat’s IPO, and launched its own range of plant-based protein blended with real
meat. “It’s no laughing matter today given the industry’s meteoric rise in recent
years,” said a Tyson Foods senior strategist. Although the number of vegans
has risen by little, an increasing number of consumers are turning to plant-based
meat due to health environmental and animal rights concerns. Brands are
ramping up production. Maple Leaf Foods will open a three hundred and ten
million dollar plant-based protein factory, the largest in the United States.
It is currently being built to make Lightlife and Field Roast vegan meat.
Beyond Meat has two facilities in the U.S., and announced its first European
facility earlier this year. In the UK, entrepreneur and V Bites founder Heather Mills will open a 385 thousand square foot
Plant-based Valley to manufacture vegan meat. The factory was sitting empty for
two years. “It will bring more jobs to the region and we can incubate all of our V
Bites ventures investments to help them scale up, manufacture, distribute, and sell
in 24 countries around the world,” Mills said. Finnebrogue Artisan, the UK’s
leading premium sausage producer, invested 3 million pounds in a dedicated
meat-free factory in Ireland last January. Increased availability may mean
that the price of vegan protein will soon achieve parity with traditional
meat. Liz Specht PhD, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute said: “Industrial
animal agriculture has been operating and optimizing at a global scale for
decades, yet it is still inherently more efficient to make meat directly from
plants, rather than feeding our crops to animals and then eating a part of the
animal. It’s all but inevitable that the plant-based meat industry will
eventually be cost-competitive with conventional meat.” A large-scale European
plant-based protein biorefinery Plenitude may make that happen. The
project, led by 10 partners including biotech company 3F bio, European meat
giant ABP foods, and veggie meat brand Vivera, will produce vegan protein for food
from low-cost crops. The Ghent-based Factory will produce 16 thousand tons of
protein per year to start, but could potentially be scaled up to 50,000 tons
annually. The refined plant-based protein will be available to companies that make
vegan meat. If successful, similar facilities will open across Europe,
potentially bringing down the cost of vegan food. “Global experts and governments and bodies such as the UN, and the FAO all consistently highlight
the need to reduce the reliance on protein from livestock,” said 3F bio CEO
Jim Laird. “From an environmental perspective, this is one of the crises of our time.” Canada’s prairie provinces also seek to
be a leader in plant-based protein. The nation invested 153 million dollars in
the protein industry’s Canada Supercluster last year… “Superclusters are areas of high business activity, hot beds of innovation, where people come together,
ideas are born, and the best companies grow.” …which will process protein from
peas and beans. So does meat have a future?
Yes and no. The meat of yesterday wrought with ethical, economical, and ecological
issues is facing extinction, but in its wake is the rise of protein 2.0. A recent
report by multinational investment bank UBS Group AG predicted that the vegan
meat market will be worth 85 billion dollars by 2030. Global consultancy firm
AT Kearney analyzed the market – and predicts that by 2040, all meat will be
vegan. Experts say that over the past few years, vegan food has been propelled from
niche markets into the mainstream. Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are proving that you can have meat without the animal, and their main
customer meat-eaters agree. That’s it for today. What are your
thoughts on meatonomics? Let us know in the comments. Remember to
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