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American Beef

meat we trustThe modern, American meatpacking industry was born of desperation during the Great Depression, reports Charles R. Morris in a Wall Street Journal review of In Meat We Trust by Maureen Ogle (12/18/13). The story goes that Jesse Jewell was watching his seed business go to seed, and hatched a plan, funded by a local bank, to buy "young chicks, which he distributed to local farmers along with seed and meticulous instructions on how to feed them. When the chickens reached market size, he brought them to Atlanta … sold them all, and paid off the farmers who raised them."

Over the ensuing quarter century, Jesse developed "a comprehensive chicken-manufacturing operation, from raw-material production – seeds, eggs and chicks – to slaughtering and packing … Chickens, which were rarely seen on urban American tables earlier in the century, became a staple." His enterprise provided a model for the "evolution of beef production," in which "feeders contracted with ranchers to bring them standardized cattle, then slaughtered the cattle at the feedlots, butchered the carcasses and packed the cuts in consumer-sized containers – ‘boxed beef’."

The result was "fresher and tastier than the average conventional butchers. Pork, poultry and other meat industries all followed more or less the same path. The ultimate standardization was confinement – raising large numbers of animals outdoors left them vulnerable to predators, fighting and other uncontrolled variables. Moving them inside into automated feeding stalls was the obvious answer.” Today, however, "catastrophic flooding of hog lagoons – lake-size excrement catchments – suggests we may be reaching the limits of consolidation."