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.