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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Justin

As a species we have the ability to tolerate a wide and varied diet that allows us to live in almost any climate around the world and thrive! Why we choose to impose these health risks upon ourselves is not a question of why, but rather a question of how to change. Your average person does not like change and will therefore continue doing what their ancestors have done.

However, it is in change that we find solace. Take, for example, racism. Most thought racism to be justified and correct many years ago, but now, after many decades of protest and debate, racism is seen to be something morally wrong and disgusting in most of western society.

To say that we should not change our habits of consumption to eliminate meat from our diets just because our ancestors thought it to be healthy is the same as saying racism is justified just because our ancestors took part in such activities.
I say a call to radical change is needed for our species to survive.

It is only in change that the night turns to day and we may continue to live in the basking warmth of the sun.

Justin

As a species we have the ability to tolerate a wide and varied diet that allows us to live in almost any climate around the world and thrive! Why we choose to impose these health risks upon ourselves is not a question of why, but rather a question of how to change. Your average person does not like change and will therefore continue doing what their ancestors have done.

However, it is in change that we find solace. Take, for example, racism. Most thought racism to be justified and correct many years ago, but now, after many decades of protest and debate, racism is seen to be something morally wrong and disgusting in most of western society.

To say that we should not change our habits of consumption to eliminate meat from our diets just because our ancestors thought it to be healthy is the same as saying racism is justified just because our ancestors took part in such activities.
I say a call to radical change is needed for our species to survive.

It is only in change that the night turns to day and we may continue to live in the basking warmth of the sun.

Anonymous

For over 2 years I attempted being a vegetarian. I followed the same diet plans and several of my friends. About a year into it, I found myself suffering headaches, loss of energy, and a constant cold. At a little over two years I went to see a natural healer. After hours of talking and studying, she finally told me that maybe I should try to eat a steak that night. That was over 13 years ago, I am healthy, am rarely sick and try to eat red meat at least every other day. I am deathly allergic to all types of seafood. Having many friends that are vegetarian and vegan, I understand their reasonings, but not everyone's body is the same and they way we process protein is different.

Anonymous

For over 2 years I attempted being a vegetarian. I followed the same diet plans and several of my friends. About a year into it, I found myself suffering headaches, loss of energy, and a constant cold. At a little over two years I went to see a natural healer. After hours of talking and studying, she finally told me that maybe I should try to eat a steak that night. That was over 13 years ago, I am healthy, am rarely sick and try to eat red meat at least every other day. I am deathly allergic to all types of seafood. Having many friends that are vegetarian and vegan, I understand their reasonings, but not everyone's body is the same and they way we process protein is different.

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