Mystery Meat

Not many people know where their steak comes from. But a look at how meat reaches your dinner plate might make you lose your appetite.
Mystery Meat
Photo: The Library of Congress

Not many people know where their steak comes from. At some point along the chain of convenience, they understand it started with an actual animal, but by the time it arrives on their dinner plate, it has been processed and packaged beyond recognition.

There was a time when shoppers expected to know a great deal about the beef they were purchasing: the age and health of the animal, where it originated, what it ate, and perhaps even its quality of life.

That all changed in the 1880s when an entrepreneur named Gustavus Swift introduced Chicago-dressed beef. Until Swift came along, cattle were shipped live by rail from the Union Stockyards in Chicago to the big urban centers of the East Coast. It was a brutal five-day journey. The cattle went without food or water, and arrived at the slaughterhouse traumatized and underweight.

Swift’s innovation was to slaughter the animals in Chicago and then ship the sides of beef in refrigerated rail cars. The result was considerable cost savings and cheaper meat for consumers. He had an inexpensive, competitive product, but Swift’s marketing problems had just begun.

“Once the Chicago-dressed beef arrived, Swift had to overcome a final obstacle more hampering than the distance, rot, and heat he’d handily overcome: customer revulsion,” Ann Vileisis explains in Kitchen Literacy. “To cooks and eaters accustomed to having a slaughterhouse just outside every town or city, ‘the very idea of Chicago-dressed beef was repugnant.’”

But people soon became accustomed to the idea of buying cheap mystery meat and, over the next century, consumers would become more alienated from the realities of food – coaxed away from instinctual relationships by low prices and clever marketing.

Swift’s ingenuity, however, has come with a terrible side effect. As investigative journalist Eric Schlosser exposed in Fast Food Nation, American slaughterhouses have become unsanitary and dangerous “cogs in the great machine.” In February 2008, the US Department of Agriculture issued the largest beef recall in history after workers were discovered dragging sick cows to slaughter.

Disgust with mystery meat is starting to seep back into the public consciousness as people realize that convenience has health consequences. When we bite into that anonymous, chain-store burger, we’re eating something that would have turned the stomach of our ancestors. Some things are worth knowing.

_Paul Cooper

34 comments on the article “Mystery Meat”

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Anonymous

Humans and grass-eating hoofed animals of all kinds have long-lasting relationships that date back to prehistory. Grassland regions could only be lived in with the help of grass-eating animals who could eat what humans could not. Camel's milk, yak's milk, sheep's milk, cow's milk, horse's milk, goat's milk - those were what kept people alive, and in exchange people protected their herds from predators and disease and made sure they had food during the winter. Oddly enough, this ancient relationship is under attack from both the remarkably cruel and callous corporate industrial food system, with its prison-like factory farms and hormone and antibiotic regimes, and the popular culture, which features "vegans" and "carnivores" hissing and spitting at one another, while forgetting all of human history.In the distant past, it was a mutually beneficial relationship between herd animals and people, but that has been perverted by the percentages-minded corporate managers of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Anonymous

Humans and grass-eating hoofed animals of all kinds have long-lasting relationships that date back to prehistory. Grassland regions could only be lived in with the help of grass-eating animals who could eat what humans could not. Camel's milk, yak's milk, sheep's milk, cow's milk, horse's milk, goat's milk - those were what kept people alive, and in exchange people protected their herds from predators and disease and made sure they had food during the winter. Oddly enough, this ancient relationship is under attack from both the remarkably cruel and callous corporate industrial food system, with its prison-like factory farms and hormone and antibiotic regimes, and the popular culture, which features "vegans" and "carnivores" hissing and spitting at one another, while forgetting all of human history.In the distant past, it was a mutually beneficial relationship between herd animals and people, but that has been perverted by the percentages-minded corporate managers of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Anonymous

I am speechless, but have long ago lost my appetite for industrial meat. Becoming vegetarian might not be an acceptible solution for everyone, but it might be wise to consider reducing the quantity of meat eaten on a regular basis. By consuming less, buying meat from a local, or nearby, small producer becomes an option not only for the upper class, but for anyone who believes in the dignity of all living beings.

Anonymous

I am speechless, but have long ago lost my appetite for industrial meat. Becoming vegetarian might not be an acceptible solution for everyone, but it might be wise to consider reducing the quantity of meat eaten on a regular basis. By consuming less, buying meat from a local, or nearby, small producer becomes an option not only for the upper class, but for anyone who believes in the dignity of all living beings.

Anonymous

In the colder part of the North American continent, where I live, grasses and grains grow well in the summer, and store well for the winter as fodder. We can produce meat year-round, but cannot grow fruit at all. Some veggies will grow here in the summertime, but only with great care, and potatoes do well in the summertime. Guess what we eat!

Anonymous

In the colder part of the North American continent, where I live, grasses and grains grow well in the summer, and store well for the winter as fodder. We can produce meat year-round, but cannot grow fruit at all. Some veggies will grow here in the summertime, but only with great care, and potatoes do well in the summertime. Guess what we eat!

Anonymous

Shipped then killed or killed then shipped, what's the difference? The end result is still a dead cow on your plate. At least the Chicago method is more efficient, seeing as the cows are less traumatized and will have more meat on them when they are harvested.

Anonymous

Shipped then killed or killed then shipped, what's the difference? The end result is still a dead cow on your plate. At least the Chicago method is more efficient, seeing as the cows are less traumatized and will have more meat on them when they are harvested.

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