Friday, January 10, 2014

In Meat We Trust: My Review

Organic, natural, free range, grass fed, factory farm, cage free, local, antibiotic free, conventional. These are some of the labels being used to describe meat. Each of these brings up much discussion and arguments about what meat we consume and if how it is produced is good. It is hard to understand where we are now and where we should go in the future without knowing how we got here. In her new book In Meat We Trust, Maureen Ogle explains how meat has gone from farm gate to dinner plate since the colonists arrived in America.

The first people coming to America had only small portions of meat in their European diets, and not because they wanted it that way. Abundant resources here for animals to get their fill, as well as the inclusion of corn in their diets, meant lots of meat to go around. Also, raising animals for food was also easier to a degree than raising crops. Having meat at the table was a status symbol.

Most of the story of meat can be summed up by saying more and more people began living in urban areas and fewer and fewer farmers began supplying the meat. Farmers left urban areas for lack of farm ground or because the people didn't want farmers' cattle and the smell of it around them. People left the farm to go to wars, or to go to higher paying jobs in towns that were less labor intensive. Ogle attributes much of this to the fact that we moved from a producer based society of making the things we must have, to a consumer based economy where we make things we want.

How do you supply meat to more and more people with less and less labor? You do what other industries do; you change production styles to gain efficiencies as factories. Farmers, on their own and with the help of university researchers, figured out how to do more with less. The same also holds true with the meat processors, who get their fair share of time in the book. They either streamlined their operations or went out of business, from the early butchers to stockyards and processors.

Ogle does not present a one sided view point of the meat and cattle industry. She reveals the roots of the modern food movements of natural, organic, etc and details the advocates and farmers that wanted a change from the norm. Ralph Nader, BSE, pink slime, and the changing guard at the FDA and EPA brought big changes to farmers and the meat processors with the changing demands of the consumer.

In Meat We Trust is never boring as it explores many of the people that have transformed the industry from Swift to Tyson. It is fascinating to read the trends in meat consumption such as how chicken went from being a delicacy to a loss leader in early grocery stores. Ogle peppers the stories with quotes from real people, magazines, and newspapers of the time to put what was happening in perspective.

In the end Ogle makes her point about the efficiencies of the current meat system. Do we want cheap meat and what it entails or are we willing to pay more to be less efficient in our production techniques? Maybe the answers are not that simple.
Decade upon decade, we've insisted on having it all - cheap food and odor-free air and quality meat and disposable incomes that enable us to buy cell phones. ......we won't transform our meat culture by taming Big Food or replacing Big Ag with a locavore-centered, alternative food system, but by examining our sense of entitlement and the way it contributes to the high cost of cheap living.
When I was approached by the publisher to review this book I admit I was a little skeptical about whether or not it would be an enjoyable read. Do not be like me! I could not read the book fast enough and have enjoyed going to work and updating the family on "what I read in my meat book last night." I think anyone interested in food and farming would appreciate it. Also, I would recommend it to be put on the reading list of Agriculture 101 classes for colleges and universities. Agriculture history can be informative and fun to read.

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