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”

Displaying 21 - 30 of 34

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13K

To be naive, I haven't read the book but "Fast Food Nation" - the movie - explains alot..
If you really like fast food, you should lay back and watch it before eating whatever they serve..

Everybody knows you can't run away from fast foods these days, but lessen it helps..
There should be an advertising contradicting the phase, "you are what you eat" as "know what you eat."
Honestly, we (as a consumer) do not know most of the origin of our foods anymore.. I'm in Thailand and I used to live in the states. I don't think there are much differnt betwwen the foods around the world these days. It's not the matter of proper diet or politically-correct ways of santizing anymore, the food industry is in such a rush to fulfill the huge worldwide demand of foods that sometime people just make mistakes.

You can hardly avoid the filth anyway, anywhere in the world it's natural to get germs in your food or even might as well be good for you, but would you rather know they serve you than naively consuming it day by day?

13K

To be naive, I haven't read the book but "Fast Food Nation" - the movie - explains alot..
If you really like fast food, you should lay back and watch it before eating whatever they serve..

Everybody knows you can't run away from fast foods these days, but lessen it helps..
There should be an advertising contradicting the phase, "you are what you eat" as "know what you eat."
Honestly, we (as a consumer) do not know most of the origin of our foods anymore.. I'm in Thailand and I used to live in the states. I don't think there are much differnt betwwen the foods around the world these days. It's not the matter of proper diet or politically-correct ways of santizing anymore, the food industry is in such a rush to fulfill the huge worldwide demand of foods that sometime people just make mistakes.

You can hardly avoid the filth anyway, anywhere in the world it's natural to get germs in your food or even might as well be good for you, but would you rather know they serve you than naively consuming it day by day?

Violetaparrago

I believe that once upon a time when hunting was not a sport but a matter of survival, eating meat was necessary for the amount of energy and the nature of the hunting itself - i.e. spears and arrows, running and chasing.
Today, what type of activities do we engage in? If one is to sit in an office (or any other type of box or cage for that matter) how much meat do we require in terms of energy spent? I cannot refute the fact that meat is a true source of protein and that it can indeed be considered -under particular circumstances- as being healthy and even nutritional. However, the question lies in the amount of meat we consume. Demand and Supply technocratic terms might come in handy when trying to understand that the less meat we eat -because of the less amount of meat our bodies need-, lesser cows and pigs and chicken are being slaughtered, and local "meat-farming" industries might stand a chance in front of the hegemonic wall of all "mysterious burgers".
--ever considered the principle of double effect when arguing against eating meat?

Violetaparrago

I believe that once upon a time when hunting was not a sport but a matter of survival, eating meat was necessary for the amount of energy and the nature of the hunting itself - i.e. spears and arrows, running and chasing.
Today, what type of activities do we engage in? If one is to sit in an office (or any other type of box or cage for that matter) how much meat do we require in terms of energy spent? I cannot refute the fact that meat is a true source of protein and that it can indeed be considered -under particular circumstances- as being healthy and even nutritional. However, the question lies in the amount of meat we consume. Demand and Supply technocratic terms might come in handy when trying to understand that the less meat we eat -because of the less amount of meat our bodies need-, lesser cows and pigs and chicken are being slaughtered, and local "meat-farming" industries might stand a chance in front of the hegemonic wall of all "mysterious burgers".
--ever considered the principle of double effect when arguing against eating meat?

antonio

In the face of everything that's wrong with meat production - the unspeakable cruelty and brutality against animals, the environmental damage and the human health hazards - the mystery is how people can continue to consume such a vile product and its derivatives, such as milk and egg. Local meat is not the answer - it's just hell on a smaller scale. The answer is veganism, there's no other morally acceptable alternative.

antonio

In the face of everything that's wrong with meat production - the unspeakable cruelty and brutality against animals, the environmental damage and the human health hazards - the mystery is how people can continue to consume such a vile product and its derivatives, such as milk and egg. Local meat is not the answer - it's just hell on a smaller scale. The answer is veganism, there's no other morally acceptable alternative.

Anonymous

to be honest, i do know where the meat i consume daily derives from, shall it be because I live in Argentina, and not in the United States? ... when i lived in the US i was a vegan, and since i was 10 years old i have avoided chain-store fast food and my son has never even tried it. it´s just a matter of perception. i believe that eating meat, fish etc is important for brain development. this article was eye openning though.

Anonymous

to be honest, i do know where the meat i consume daily derives from, shall it be because I live in Argentina, and not in the United States? ... when i lived in the US i was a vegan, and since i was 10 years old i have avoided chain-store fast food and my son has never even tried it. it´s just a matter of perception. i believe that eating meat, fish etc is important for brain development. this article was eye openning though.

bea elliott

I am not forgetting history - nor what was perhaps necessity "once". However 6.7 billion people later -with 70% of our rain forests gone to cattle grazing, ground and river water contaminated - the largest contributor to global warming being animal industries I can't help but look to the future. Healthy Veg*an for years - slaughtering innocent sentient beings for artery clogging "food" is not necessary! For health & heart.... Go VEGAN!

bea elliott

I am not forgetting history - nor what was perhaps necessity "once". However 6.7 billion people later -with 70% of our rain forests gone to cattle grazing, ground and river water contaminated - the largest contributor to global warming being animal industries I can't help but look to the future. Healthy Veg*an for years - slaughtering innocent sentient beings for artery clogging "food" is not necessary! For health & heart.... Go VEGAN!

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