Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview

12
THE SECRET HISTORY OF MEAT

In 1954, a 52-year-old struggling salesman named Ray Kroc, who had sold everything from paper cups to Florida real estate, traveled to San Bernadino, California, to hawk his latest item, the Multimixer milkshake machine. He headed for a restaurant owned by two brothers named Mac and Dick McDonald. Kroc sat outside the octagonal building, transfixed by the sight of customers, queuing up, one after another, to buy sacks and sacks of hamburgers. The restaurant appealed to him on a number of levels. He liked the stripped-down, simple menu centered around the hamburger. He admired the preparation process, which resembled a kind of assembly line for food. Even the building with its arches impressed him. And the name McDonald's seemed to have a nice ring to it. “I had a feeling,” he later wrote, “that it would be one of those promotable names that would catch the public fancy.” 1

No food is more closely associated with American consumer culture than the hamburger. Only the invention of the automobile rivals the rise of fast food meat eating in terms of its consequences for both nature and social relations. What Henry Ford did for the car, Ray Kroc did for the hamburger, mass producing them in accordance with the strictest of standards and placing them within easy reach of the vast majority of the American population.

Behind the Golden Arches and the other ways in which modern Americans go about feeding themselves, however, lay a set of profound changes in our relationship with the land, more specifically, in agriculture itself. To support the masses of new consumers eager for beef, raising livestock evolved into a factory enterprise. Beef led the way, but in the years after World War II poultry and pork production perfected the industrial form. Thousands of animals were confined to feedlots and were fed corn, soybeans, and fishmeal, plus vitamins, hormones, and antibiotics. Such a diet used massive amounts of water and energy—to grow the feed; water the cattle, pigs, and chickens; and produce the fertilizers that farmers depended on more than ever before. With crops and animals raised in separate places, manure lost its role as a vehicle for transporting solar energy and nutrients back to the soil and instead became a major source of water pollution. Munching a hamburger may seem innocent enough, but the nation's love affair with meat has had enormous consequences for people and ecosystems across the continent, impacts of which most consumers were (and are) only dimly aware.


THE DEBUT OF BEEF

Before the late nineteenth century, pork, not beef, dominated the national palate. The popularity of pork is not surprising in light of all the advantages there were

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