Spoiled Meat: the Beef Industry in the United States

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In his 1909 short story, A Piece of Steak, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, Jack London, America’s first prominent and still greatest boxing writer, tells the tale of Tom King. King is a fighter well past his athletic prime with features that bear the scars of past battles: ‘A nose, twice broken and molded variously by countless blows, and a cauliflower ear, permanently swollen and distorted to twice its size…and knuckles, smashed and battered and malformed.’ In need of a payday to support his family and pay off his creditors, King takes a fight with a much younger fighter named Sandel. King really needs the winner’s purse, though unfortunately, due to his lack of credit, he is unable to secure a good training regime nor even a hearty meal the day of the fight as the local butchers won’t provide credit for steak. His kids are sent to bed without supper.

Still being a craft veteran King is able to keep the young upstart at bay through the early rounds. In the tenth round, King sees his opening, landing a vicious right that drops his opponent. Though Sandel rises, King sensing victory pins Sandel on the ropes continuing his attack. Suddenly however, King’s strength abandons him and Sandel’s superior condition allows him to counterattack and score a knockout over the exhausted older fighter. King, who had been advanced the loser’s share some weeks and therefore made no money for the fight, ends the story weeping on a park bench contemplating his deep hunger and dim economic prospects. London writes: ‘Ah, that piece of steak would have done it! He lacked just that for the decisive blow, and he had lost. It was all because of the piece of steak.’

London actually placed the story in Australia, and his clear theme was the perilous road of ageing prizefighters, however being published in a widely circulated American magazine, the meaning of the steak would not have been missed. Steak has long been the symbolic pinnacle of American meat, simultaneously representing both democratic eating and high class status. In the early 20th century, immigrants wrote home and visitors marveled about the abundance of available meat in American cities.

In April 2014, rancher Cliven Bundy, the last remaining rancher in Clark County, Nevada, gained national fame for his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for administering public lands. Matters came to a head as Bundy, whose family has long roots in the area and brought its ranch in 1948, had refused for twenty years to pay the federal grazing fees attached to the land (the federal government owns about 80 percent of the land in Nevada). The fees went back to 1993, along with increased restrictions on grazing, in part to protect the endangered desert tortoise. By 2014, Bundy had accumulated more than a $1 million in fines and fees (excluding that amount the total for the whole country of all late grazing fees owned to the BLM at the time was only $237,000).

On April 5th federal agents, with the approval of a Nevada federal district judge, closed most of the nearby federal land and began to confiscate Bundy’s cattle with a plan to auction the cattle off. Over 100 cows were confiscated and Bundy’s son was arrested for not leaving the closed off area. The night of April 6th, Bundy, as if starring in a corny Western, posted a message on the Bundy Ranch webpage that read: ‘They have my cattle and now they have one of my boys. Range War begins tomorrow.’ Protestors, both local and out-of-state, including some armed militia types, flocked to the area. The requisite shouts about ‘states rights’ and ‘federal tyranny’ filled the air. The standoff lasted until April 12th when the BLM threw in the towel, releasing a statement citing ‘grave concern about the safety employees and members of the public.’ Four hundred confiscated cattle were returned to Bundy thought he was still on the hook for the $1 million.

In January 2016, a judge dismissed a 16 count indictment alleging that Bundy, his two sons, and a co-defendant conspired to obstruct federal agents from rounding up the cattle, including by recruiting squads of armed gunmen. The judge found that prosecutors, including then-acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, withheld over 3,000 pages of FBI reports and other evidence that may have helped the defendants- including video taken surreptitiously within the range. This included the dirty trick of agents posing as journalists and tricking the family and its supporters into giving on-camera interviews that could be used in future trials.

Bundy’s spiel was largely nonsense. The U.S. government owns and controls 640 million acres of land, a great majority of it in the West. The acreage will not be reverted to the control of states on the whim of a rancher and there has never been a serious political movement toward that end. On 229 million acres of this public land, the federal government allows livestock operations and cattle producers to use the land for grazing. The fees that are charged are much less than it costs to graze livestock on private land, in fact, the fees are less than 7 percent of what grazing would cost on private lands (already low, the Trump administration lowered the fees when it came to office). The costs lost to this boondoggle are covered by tax dollars amounting to $125 million a year. All in all, it amounts to a large subsidy for ranchers and the meat industry.

Still, the technicalities are hardly the point. Bundy and his family serve as representations for many ancient values that are allegedly and eternally under assault. One defender at the time on why the Bundys deserved sympathy while acknowledging their legal arguments were losers, put it: ‘‘And their way of life is one that, frankly, is on the outs. They don’t develop apps. They don’t ask for food stamps. It probably has never occurred to them to bribe a politician. They don’t subsist by virtue of government subsidies or regulations that hamstring competitors. They aren’t illegal immigrants. They have never even gone to law school. So what possible place is there for the Bundys in the Age of Obama?’

‘Way of life’ here is code for things like frontier, rugged individualism, virtuousness, and masculinity. The ‘Old West’ embodies this as both a period of time and geographical space. Of course, this is not difficult to deconstruct. For one thing, the mythology now seems conflate ranchers and cowboys. In reality, cowboys usually worked for ranchers and, to say the least, it was not pleasant work. Cowboys were greatly exploited and seasonal workers. They had to make do with little sleep and shabby food while dealing with the harsh elements. In fact, it was so tough that of the roughly 35,000 men who drove herds from 1867 through the 1880s, only a third participated in more than one drive. While Hollywood made its hay with the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Roy Rogers as its cowboy figureheads, a quarter of cowboys were African-American, and plenty others were Native Americans; and far from paragons of pure individualism, cowboys at times organized for higher pay (see Mark Lause’s The Great Cowboy Strike).

Before the Civil War, pork was the preeminent meat of 19th century, much of it in the cured form as ham and bacon. Pork lends itself to salting and smoking processes better than beef, which consumers have always prefer fresh. Such methods were necessary for large scale packing before refrigeration. In the 1840s, Cincinnati, given its advantageous location on a bend on the Ohio River near rich farming country, emerged as the first national meatpacking center. Known back then as ‘Porkopolis’, by the winter of 1847-48 there were forty processing plants (up from twenty-six in 1844). It was in these plants where the first rudimentary steps toward assembly line division of labor was established. Packing was a seasonal affair that began when the weather turned cold enough for meat to be chilled for curing. Annual production had reached 100,000 hogs in the 1830s and more than doubled to 250,000 in the 1840s, reaching 400,000 on the eve of the Civil War. Cincinnati pork reached East Coast cities and Southern plantations.

Beef was more urban and local meat. Given the sheer size of cows, and therefore the amount of meat needing to be preserved, beef was not convenient for rural farmers. Town and city populations could support demand for fresh meat. In the East, small and disconnected farms produced beef for regional markets. Profitable production depended on cheap forage, either free grass on the frontier or cheap grain from bountiful harvests.

War, as it always does, served as a catalyst. During the American War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, the price of livestock spiked only to crash when the war was over. The Civil War brought a similar spike in prices but the surrender at Appomattox did not bring a similar fall. The devastation of the war reduced the overall slaughter-animal count. Pork was in shorter supply just as livestock from Texas was becoming available in northern states, where it was about ten times more valuable than in cow-saturated Texas. The war had cut off Texas from its southern markets leaving countless longhorns to scatter freely. Ranchers often hired newly freed slaves as cowboys to round up herds as rapidly industrializing cities up north increased demand for meat.

With the clearing of the Plains of bison and Native Americans in the Indian Wars of the 1870s, the land was open for beef. High prices were lingering and big capital wanted in. It flowed from Eastern Banks and international sources, particularly Britain. The Anglo-American Cattle Company was the first British ranching company in the West. Founded in 1879, it operated in Wyoming and Dakota Territory. The Colorado Mortgage and Investment Company of London launched a few months later. In 1880, the Prairie Cattle Company, operating out of Edinburgh, came online in Colorado and Texas (under the chairmanship of the Earl of Airlie). The Missouri Land and Livestock Company was also Edinburgh based. Most likely, the largest ranch of the 1880s, the XIT, started out as a three million-acre grant given to Chicago-based investors in exchange for them building the Texas statehouse (the original idea of that venture was to use ranching to hold the land until it could be unload at a higher price to settlers). It also had the support of British capital. All this didn’t go unnoticed by the general public. In 1884, both the Democratic and Republican conventions included planks in their platforms calling for limits on ‘alien holdings.’ The 1887 Alien Property Act limited the further ownership of land in territories (as opposed to states) to companies with that were no more than 20 percent foreign owned. By the 1880s, the U.S. was responsible for 90 percent of beef imports to Britain.

The boom was not to last. Joshua Specht describes well in Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, corporate ranching was plagued with difficult problems from the start. Given that cows need a lot of open space to graze, it was impossible to keep accurate counts of large herds. This flew in the face of investors who expected precise numbers. Land and water rights were contentious and hazy. When the speculative boom brought about a predictable drop in prices as cattle filled the Plains, panic set and nervous investors pushed to dump their herds pressuring better-run ranches to compete with fire-sales prices. This fragile structure ran into unusually harsh winters from 1885-1887.

By 1890, the boom was over. British capital had taken a roughly $25 million hit by the early 20th century. Eastern investors also suffered large losses. As Specht explains, the implications to the quick fall of corporate ranching were twofold: smaller, family-owned ranches would be predominant (often mixed with farming), maintaining mythology of family, localism, and tradition (hence figures like Cliven Bundy); and corporate power would be on the packing side of the meat industry.

This power brought immediate advantage. Moving livestock, particularly when it is alive, was costly and risky. Animals would weigh less upon arrival due to the trip, and the risk of injury was always present. When shipments arrived to be sold, packers had the use of a telegraph to find shipments at different locations for the price they wanted to pay, while ranchers moving livestock from one market to another ran into those risks. The packers’ leverage usually won out.

The explosive expansion of railroads was the obvious factor. In 1830 only 23 miles of railroad track was down in the U.S. By 1860, there was over 30,000 miles. 1880: 93,267 miles; 1890: 163,600 miles. After the Civil War, railroads extended as far south as Kansas with the Kansas Pacific Railway. With the demand for cattle from Texas, often driven up along the famous Chisholm Trial, newly founded towns in Kansas fiercely competed with each other to attract the shipments. This created a cycle of boom and bust towns replete with the trimmings of Western lore that attracted newly paid cowboys: dance halls, saloons, tolerated brothels. Abilene, Kansas was the first ‘cow town’, but it immediately faced competition from Ellsworth as the railroad moved south. Wichita and Dodge City followed, all these towns enjoyed a brief peak followed by decline as new towns emerged and railroads expanded.

It was the opposite for meatpacking. These railroads enabled centralization. With Southern cities cut off by the war, and with the deadlock in Congress over potential routes of the transcontinental railroad broken by the succession of the Confederate states, enabling the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act (1862), Chicago emerged as the central point. Its population growth was booming by the 1850s (Chicago’s population in 1850 was 29.963, in 1900 it was 1,698,575). The Chicago region already had a synergy with New York with opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. William Cronon shows in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, that this relationship with New York made it a target for credit and investment. The railroads allowed livestock to be shipped directly eastward rather than around through South. The Union army’s blockade of the lower Mississippi River helped Chicago’s pork industry to grow by over six times in the early 1860s. The benefits of centralization was also recognized within Chicago. The massive Union Stockyards opened in Chicago in 1865. By 1870, Chicago produced twice as much cured pork products as Cincinnati.

The next logical step was to defeat seasonality. To keep meat fresh and to produce it all year. The first step toward refrigeration involved packing railcars with ice. A couple of Detroit packers came up with different methods of ice packing. George H. Hammond brought a patent that used metal racks that suspended meat above ice. J.B. Sutherland patented a car equipped with ice tanks on both ends. These crude iceboxes did keep the meat cold but created other problems like freezer burn and a lack of air circulation that caused uneven cooling and spoilage. The height of the meat on the racks caused the derailment of cars on sharp turns.

Still the potential was obvious. Shipping dressed beef (the meat of a butchered animal) gave packers a national market, rather than a local one. Given that around 40 percent of a steer is inedible bones, blood, and entrails, from a brutal capitalist perspective it could save packers a great deal on shipping costs by allowing them to ship only beef instead of the whole animal.

In the late-1870s, Swift & Company starting investing in dressed beef shipping. One of its engineers, Andrew Chase, designed a car that stored ice on the roof to drop cold air naturally on the meat, which was tightly packed on the bottom to keep it from shifting. Warm air was ventilated out through the floor. This advance allowed Swift & Company to safely ship dressed beef to Eastern cities. Other packers quickly copied.

Yet the transition was not completely smooth. Technology is never completely determinant; there is always the inevitable question of social relations. The new dressed beef market conflicted with the interests of two groups: railroad owners and local butchers. Railroads were fearful of having to ship a less profitable product (beef) instead of the heavier cattle. Dressed beef from animals slaughtered in Chicago risked local butchers and wholesalers, turning the former into simply retailers.

Yet this resistance collapsed rather quickly. Railroad owners, fearful of the new technology eliminating their existing stock of railcars, forced the packers to build their own refrigerated cars- in the long run this only helped the packers increase their power. The railroads attempted to charge different rates for shipping dress beef and livestock, using pooling agreements to coordinate business. Swift & Company got around this by contracting with Grand Truck Railway of Canada (GTR). GTR’s route left Chicago heading east then went north through Canada before swinging back to the U.S. Never previously a big player in commodities shipping, in 1885 GTR had about 60 percent of the dressed beef trade. The other railroads soon caved.

Any initial hesitation by customers over consuming beef slaughtered in another part of the country was displaced by falling prices. A Minnesota state law requiring that meat be inspected locally prior to slaughter was challenged by Armour & Company and found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1890. Local butcher complaints about predatory pricing were met by packers with an easy defense that meat is a perishable product and therefore sold cheap or wasted. The Chicago packers were ruthlessly competitive and had no issue losing money in the short-term to undercut local producers whose resistance was painted as elitist and anti-consumer before the public happy to get their meat cheaper.

By 1889, four companies, Swift & Company, Armour & Company, Morris & Company, and Hammond & Company, known as the Meat Trust, controlled over 90 percent of beef produced in Chicago. By the 20th century beef overtook pork has the most consumed meat, a position it held until the rise of mass produced chicken decades later. In 1909, on average Americans ate 81.5 pounds of beef compared to 67.0 pounds of pork.

It was in the Chicago meatpacking plants where the assembly line took a further step forward. Henry Ford himself was inspired by visiting the Armour and Swift plants. Production organized by disassembly lines brought about proletarianization of the industry and thus unrest. Meatpacking was the most strike prone of all U.S. industries from 1881 to 1905. The first few generations saw bursts of militancy, limited success, followed by crushing defeat at the hands of worker division, seasonal employment that ensured a large reserve army of local labor, and the sheer firepower of the state (dozens of workers were killed in conflict with police in the strikes of 1877). In 1904, a major strike erupted at Chicago’s Union Stockyards. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America had been chartered in Cincinnati in January 1897. It was not long before the union was a major presence in Chicago. In 1904, Amalgamated sought a minimum wage for all common workers in the yards. The union managed to unite striking workers across ethnic and class lines for nearly two months yet time was on the packers’ side. While black strikebreakers tend to get the greatest spotlight, all sorts scabs were readily available (one case included a large group of immigrants sent straight from Ellis Island). Though turnover among strikebreakers was high, some new immigrants walked off when they realized a strike was happening, the packers had enough of a surplus of workers to outlast the union.

The First World War provided workers a chance to make gains. Production rose dramatically during the war. In the three years prior to the war’s outbreak average monthly beef exports ran to just over a million pounds. In June 1918, exports exceeded 92 million pounds. Profits rose along with exports. Aggregate profit for the four largest firms from 1912 to 1914 was $19 million. Registered profits reached $46 million in 1916 and $68 million in 1917.  With labor momentarily in shorter supply due to the draft and immigration being severely limited (the shortage was filled in part by married women and the Great Migration of American Americans from the South), the U.S. government, anxious to keep productivity rising and avoid crippling strikes, set up an arbitration system for labor disputes. As James Barrett put it in his book Work and Community in the Jungle, ‘Each time management sensed a restlessness among workers, they hiked the rate another 2.5 cents.’ By 1919, there were 45,000 workers in the Chicago plants.

With exports crashing after the war and leftover manufacturing inventory unable to be sold the country entered into recession in 1920. The unemployment rate reached double digits a year later. The number of meatpacking workers in Chicago dropped by 40 percent to 27,000. For those still working, however, the common hourly wage at a high of 53 cents. Though with prices falling hard and the industry reporting a decline in profits, the packers went on the offensive (the capital offensive was mirrored nationally, it is the reason 1919 was the largest strike year in U.S. history). In February 1921, they scrapped the arbitration system and imposed a wage cut. Only a government-orchestrated compromise prevented a strike but only delayed the inevitable. From there the packing companies put out company newspapers, attempted to establish company unions, and instituted limited stock options for workers. When another expected wage cut was introduced in November, Amalgamated called a national strike. It was doomed from the start. In a midst of economic crisis, high unemployment brought back local labor surpluses. In Chicago black strikebreakers had a large effect. In the aftermath of the gruesome 1919 Race Riot, local black institutions such as churches and newspapers were generally anti-union. Given their recent experience with sharecropping in the deep South, many African-Americans saw even the stockyards as an improvement not to be jeopardized. On top of this, the state came down heavily on the side of the packers. Early in the strike Judge Dennis Sullivan issued a sweeping injunction effectively outlawing picketing. Sullivan ruled ‘I have come to the conclusion that there are no absolute rights in society day. All rights are relative…As I understand the law in Illinois, there is no such thing as ‘peaceful picketing.’ Two thousand police officers flooded into Packingtown to enforce the order provoking rioting. The union called off the strike in defeat on February 1st 1922.

It wasn’t until the emergence of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), originally charted by the CIO in October 1937 as the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, that lasting gains were made. In the aftermath of an organizing wave, master agreements for the industry were signed in the 1940s. UPWA was successful in uniting workers along racial lines, and unlike Amalgamated, was more aligned with the radical Left (in 1950 it created an Anti-Discrimination Department to fight racial discrimination at plants). For a generation meat packing provided a solid living. In 1950 wages for meatpacking were only slightly lower than U.S. manufacturing. By 1960 wages in meatpacking were 15 percent higher, a number that basically held through the 1970s. Adjusted for inflation, wages for meat packing workers in the late 1970s

At the same time the seeds of this period’s demise were eagerly being planted. Production began to be moved from its traditional strongholds of meatpacking districts in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Kansas City, to rural areas. These meatpacking districts had been centered along railroad lines where livestock was shipped. What railroads brought about in the 19th century, trucks and highways helped create in the 20th century. If railroads offered meatpackers centralization, trucks offered decentralization. The industry shift to the country moved packing closer to the livestock saving transport costs while moving away from urban unions. The shift was widespread including reaching places like Kansas and Nebraska where production was moved from Omaha, Wichita, and Lincoln to rural communities like Norfolk and Lexington. The Union Stockyards in Chicago would close in 1971. IBP (originally named Iowa Beef Producers) emerged, with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, as an industry equivalent of Wal-Mart, pioneering boxed beef, i.e. meat that comes in a sealed package usually with a company logo, (thereby leading to the further decline of skilled butchers) and dragging the rest of the industry to extreme cost-cutting. Boxed beef sparked the same kind of protests dressed beef once did, but its consumer popularity quickly overwhelmed any resistance.

These developments led to the decline of the original Big Four meat companies. For a while, there was more competition. In 1980, the four biggest companies controlled only 25 percent of the total beef market. Yet predictively such times were not to last. Mergers took off during the Reagan years and again four companies dominate the industry: Tyson (which purchased IBP in 2001), JBS (purchased Swift in 2007), Cargill, and National Beef. Market concentration is as high as ever with these companies processing over 80 percent of the nation’s beef.

It is probably indisputable that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the story of a Lithuanian immigrant family confronting the brutality of Chicago’s meat racket, was the most influential American novel of the 20th century, at least as far as its practical, social effect. Published in book form in 1906 (it was published a year earlier in serial form for the radical newspaper Appeal To Reason), Sinclair’s scenes of rat carcasses being grinded into the sausage casings helped grease the skids of Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act- the latter led to the founding of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) , just four months after the novel’s publication. Still Sinclair thought that the main point had been missed, lamenting ‘I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.’

If Sinclair surveyed a packing plant today, he would recognize a familiar scene: the astronomical employee turnover rate, exploited immigrants, the accelerated line speeds. Just this past September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the go-ahead to eliminate limits on production line speeds at pork packing plants, deeming such restrictions an ‘unnecessary regulatory obstacle to industry innovation.’ Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows that packing plant workers are three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker. Repetitive motions injuries among beef and pork processing workers were nearly seven times than other industries. Amputations, second-degree burns, head trauma, and fractures are common. OSHA data from 2015 to 2017 (reviewed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) show an average of two amputations a week. Human Rights Watch reported in 2019 that on average eight workers a year died from incidents sustained on the job between 2013 and 2017. These numbers come when the Bureau of Labor Statistics implausibly reports that the injury rate at meatpacking plants had declined significantly in recent times. Such an absurdity comes in part from an OSHA ruling back during the George W. Bush years that cumulative trauma injuries didn’t have to be recorded separately by packing companies- from 2001 to 2003 a third of the total of official injuries vanished. There is also the obvious underreporting of injuries by workers, an ancillary benefit of having a workforce with large numbers of undocumented workers. A study from U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that collecting data on injuries is challenging since ‘workers may underreport injuries and illness because they fear losing their jobs.’

The rise of IBP inspired emulators such as ConAgra and Excell and expanded to chicken and pork production. Older companies were forced to adopt. It sparked an era of union concessions and decline, highlighted by the defeat of the high-profile strike of workers at a pork packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. By the time the anti-union work of the 1980s was done wages in meatpacking were 20 percent lower than manufacturing. By 2002, they were 24 percent lower; today they are 44 percent lower. Regulations were withdrawn and line speeds were once again increased unilaterally by companies. Even by official statistics, injuries surged in the 1980s. The job turnover rate at packing plants is 100 percent.

As for ranchers, after the corporate bust of the late 19th century, big meat largely left the ranching arena. The five largest meatpackers signed a consent degree in 1920 after an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded they colluded to fix prices for years, forcing them to sell off their stockyards and railroad interests. For the next fifty years after the marketplace for cattle was relatively competitive with the price set by open bidding at auctions. The auctions featured up to dozens

Of bidding companies. The system began to fall apart with the reconcentration of industry through mergers mentioned above and the increased use of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). CAFOs are generally defined as operations where large numbers of animals, usually in the thousands, are fed for at least 45 days a year.

Cattle ranching has been a holdout against what is known as vertical integration. The National Chicken Council (NCC), the poultry industry’s DC lobby arm, describes vertically integrated companies as ‘companies in a supply chain united through a common owner. Usually, each member of the supply chain produces a different product or service, and the products combine to satisfy a common need- in this case, the production of broiler chicken.’ What this translates to is the meat company owns almost every stage of the operation. It owns the animals and the feed. It does all the marketing. The only part of the process not owned by the company is the least profitable part, the farming. The beauty of the system for the company is that it gets to outsource that by signing farmers to exclusive investments and upgrades to their farms, indeed companies force these investments on farmers with the threat of losing the contract- farmers already in debt have little choice but to comply.

The animal stock is bred or hatched by the company and delivered, along with company-owned feed, to farmers under contract with the company. Farmers are paid on the basis of ‘feed conversion’, how many of the animals delivered to the farmer can be raised and returned for slaughter with as efficient use of feed as possible. Farmers under contract for the same company, compete with each other under that metric with the winners paid more than those ranked lower (the cost of feed deducted from all). Only the company holds all the information. Contracts can be canceled by the company at any time.

Meat companies have farmers making capital investments and competing with each other, not in a free market, but in company-owned corporate fiefdoms. Thus exists the surreal scenario of farmers owning the means of production while playing the role of serfs on their own farms. Contract farming started with the poultry industry but eventually swallowed up hog farming as well. As the pork industry integrated, 90 percent of hog farms disappeared.

On one hand, with the expansion of CAFOs, pressure built on cattle ranches to grow. Besides having dire environmental consequences, given the sheer amount of waste they produce CAFOs are the largest polluters of rivers and lakes in the country, CAFOs push out smaller operations. On the other hand, with only a few beef companies and feedlots again dominating production and not in a rush to bid against each other, it is hardly a free market. In addition, the major meat companies control a good percentage of the live cattle in the country through ‘captive supplies’- cattle either kept in company-owned feedlots or acquired in advance through forward contracts. If cattle prices start to rise, companies can simply flood the market with this reserve supply.

All this depresses the prices independent ranchers can get. Between 1980 and 2008, 516,000 beef cattle operations folded, about 40 percent of the total. By 2016, the number was over 43 percent. Many of the remaining operations, particularly the larger ones, signed contracts with companies. Is it ironic that the last holdouts being scrapped by the system are the ones who embody the spirit of rugged independence so celebrated in Western mythology?

It was Mark Twain who said ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ Over a century after the publication of The Jungle it is clear that its main players again strut upon the stage: The Meat Trust, exploited workers, now joined by bounded farmers and struggling ranchers. The industry remains dark, forbidding place. In January 2020, Senator Corey Booker introduced the Farm Systems Reform Act, which aims to eliminate CAFOs by 2040. A few months later the bill was co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Yet given how it was totally ignored during the recent election season, despite some media attention on the industry due to widespread COVID infections at packing plants, it is difficult to see any real source of light. Yet through worker militancy, the industry was forced to reform once. If Twain was correct, with public support such militancy can be renewed again.


Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).