‘In Meat We Trust’
April 11, 2014
Historian Maureen Ogle is no stranger to exploration of the food business. In 2006, she penned the title, "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer." Her appetite to learn more is shown in her analysis of her new book, released in November 2013, "In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America."
The book opens with, "Truly we may be called a carnivorous people." While a growing population of vegetarians may think otherwise, Ogle takes the reader on an adventure through America's rich history, starting with the pilgrims in the original colonies and spreading through the west as the pioneers expanded both their cattle herds and their pasture lands.
"I approached the book from a point of ignorance: I knew nothing about livestock production or meat processing (despite having lived in Iowa my entire life). So I didn't have an opinion about any of it," Ogle explained, of her seven years researching and exploring the meat industry. "Instead, I had two goals: First, to teach myself about the history of two of our nation's biggest industries and meat's role in American culture. Second, to pass along what I learned to others who also might not know anything about any of that (and, as I learned, the vast majority of Americans are woefully ignorant about how meat gets to their plates)."
The book itself was released at a time where Americans are becoming more keenly aware of what they are putting in their mouths and are demanding to know more about the farmers and ranchers behind their favorite foods. In her research, Ogle was quick to realize that many of today's consumers have misconceived notions about the meat industry, and she was able to achieve an unbiased approach to explaining these misconceptions in her work.
"In recent years, books about food in general and meat in particular have abounded and in sufficient variety to suit every political palate," she said. "Few of them, however, examine the historical underpinnings of our food system."
Ogle took her role as a historian seriously, diving into 200 years of government documents, agricultural trade magazines, newspapers and personal testimonies to give readers a look at how the American meat industry was shaped. Through the course of her research, she was able to explain the intricacies of how the meat industry has evolved, and at a time where consumers are quick to blame modern technologies on environmental and health issues, Ogle takes an interesting approach in placing some of the blame on consumers themselves.
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"We Americans are an odd lot: We live in a society that, for all its flaws, endows us with a sense of infinite possibility. We don't just want it all; we believe we can have it all," she explained. "But that mindset has consequences. For example, many of us want a three-bedroom house with a yard; we want the property to be affordable; and we want that property in a quiet neighborhood, preferably out in "the country." So we plow up farmland to build housing developments and highways, thereby driving up farmers' costs of production. (And then many of us complain about the odors from the hog farm two miles down the road.)
"As a result of those desires, farmers hit by soaring high land prices adopt technologies, such as confinement, in order to reduce their production costs and earn a profit. And then, sure enough, we consumers criticize about those technologies – confinement, antibiotics, manure lagoons – and demand that farmers rely on other, more expensive production modes. Food and meat prices rise – and then we complain about high meat prices at the grocery store. The price of that house, that highway, that steak? They're all connected. We can't have it all," she concludes.
In the book, no stone is left unturned. Ogle explores the development of major meat packers and big fast food companies. She discusses food nutrition programs, technologies like lean finely textured beef, and production methods such as natural, organic and grass-fed. She takes elitist foodies/natural farmers like Joel Salatin to task for promoting an idyllic food system that wouldn't even come close to feeding the nation. She walks readers from the farm, to the grocery store, in the hopes of giving Americans accurate information as they make their own meat selections.
The take-away message for Ogle's book is simple, yet answers to some of the meat industry's problems are a little bit harder to come by.
"The task of feeding a modern urban society is an extraordinarily complex logistical balancing act, one that's been constructed piece by piece over many decades," she said. "And whatever ills, real or imagined, plague our food system, including livestock production and meat processing, those can't be solved (let alone understood) by attacking farmers, blaming big corporations, or by touting simplistic, feel-good solutions (shop locally! eat organic!)."
In the conclusion of the book, Ogle writes, "In the United States, deep change happens slowly. Our political machinery is less well oiled than it is unwieldy and cantankerous, but, like an old Farmall tractor, it will get the job done. Two things, however, are certain: We won't move forward until we can talk to rather than at each other about the high price of cheap food. And we won't starve while we try to decide how, if at all, to reinvent the American way of meat."
The book is now available wherever books are sold or at maureenogle.com/in-meat-we-trust/.