In Search of a New Balance: Meat in Twentieth-Century American History

AHA Session 220
German Historical Institute 3
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Erie Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Bruce Kraig, Roosevelt University
Modern Meat: Its Industrial Past, Its Contentious Present, Its Uncertain Future
Michael Broadway, Northern Michigan University; Donald D. Stull, University of Kansas
The Audience

Session Abstract

Meat is the core of American meals. In the nineteenth century, Americans ate far more meat than Europeans on average, and meat consumption became a symbol of the wealth and opportunity the New World offered. The packing industry, identified above all with the Chicago stockyards, was recognized both as an expression of economic efficiency and as the ugly face of modern capitalism. While the average annual consumption of meat rose from 50 to 80 kg per capita during the twentieth century, the economic structure of the meat industry changed fundamentally. This panel will analyze crucial aspects of this transformation and encourage discussion of the future of meat.

The panel will consider three case studies ranging from the late nineteenth century to today. The first focuses on Oscar Mayer, one of the first packers to anticipate the changes in American market structures between the World Wars. While the big players continued to produce increasing amounts of cheap meat, smaller competitors such as Mayer transformed meat into a branded good. It created new spaces of public consumption and made meat consumption a leisure activity. After the Second World War, new transport systems and the rise of supermarkets led to a growing number of decentralized and specialized producers. With the shrinking number of local butchers, slaughtering disappeared from the daily experience. Meat was increasingly perceived as a commodity, not as the result of the killing of a creature. However, kosher butchering – based on respect for the animals’ dignity – provides a counterpoint set by religious beliefs and ethnic networks. The second case study focuses on kosher meat, the permanent struggle for meat quality and its complex definition in a market dominated by mass-producers and driven by hard price competition. The third case study will assess the social and ecological consequences of the rise of the multinational meat packers who came to dominate the industry during the last third of the twentieth century and look at the long-term impact on producers, workers, and host communities. To meet consumers’ seemingly insatiable desire for easily affordable protein, packers have competed fiercely to reduce their production costs, often opting for remote locations that offer ready access to cheap animals and inexpensive labor. Looking to the future, the panel will ask how the interests and responsibilities of both communities – consumers and producers – can be balanced to create a sustainable structure for meat production.

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