The Whole Package

Historians Maureen Ogle and Roger Horowitz examine the change in Americans’ relationship with meat once the refrigerated box car allowed meat to be shipped butchered and dressed from the slaughterhouse.

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ED: We’re going to take a moment now to lay out the history behind that shrink wrapped beef and pork at your grocery store. Consider it the origin story of packaged meat.

It starts in the 19th century, in the decades after the Civil War. Back then, meat didn’t just appear in a store.

MAUREEN: If you lived in a town or a city, you were keenly aware of how meat got to your stomach.

ED: This is historian Maureen Ogle. She says the process of turning a cow into a steak was hardly invisible.

MAUREEN: A butcher would herd his purchases through the street until he got to his butcher shop, which might be a block from your house, or behind your kids’ schools, or right next to your church, where he would proceed to slaughter the animal and then hang the carcass and carve pieces off to sell to his customers. Or if you were a wholesaler and had a larger slaughtering operation, you would guide your animals through the street, people running to avoid them, hoping that the animals don’t suddenly decide to stampede, which happened often.

ED: Yeah, it just doesn’t sound much like Pepperidge Farm, does it?

MAUREEN: No. No, not at all.

ED: This was the case even in bigger cities, such as New York.

MAUREEN: Where the Plaza Hotel now stands in Manhattan, there was a huge stock yard.

ED: Up until the 1870s, this was the American meat system. Most Americans had no access to refrigeration, and if you want to meat, it had to be freshly slaughtered. So every city and town had multiple stock yards and the streets team with cattle, pigs, and sheep. As America’s urban population swell throughout the 19th century, the animal population grew to and became ever more of a nuisance. Listen to this angry resident writing the Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1860s, summed up in Ogle’s book.

“There’s, perhaps, nothing more aggravating than to trudged home from work, wading through all manner of filth on the sidewalks, only to find your garden rooted up, your evergreens bitten off and broken, and hanging laundry yanked to the ground and stained with the marks of muddy cloven feet.”

PETER: Enter a man named Gustavo Swift. Historians consider him the Thomas Edison of meat.

MAUREEN: In less than a space of about four years, the guy completely up and ended decades, and decades, and decades of the meat production system in the US. It was astonishing to me.

ROGER HOROWITZ: Gustavo Swift begins as a butcher, literally taking chopped meat up, you know, carting around households in the greater Boston area.

PETER: This is food historian Roger Horowitz.

ROGER HOROWITZ: And what happens is, he starts trying to follow the animal chain back, how animals arrive at Boston, because he’s looking for better animals and better prices. And eventually he follows it back to Chicago.

PETER: Swift wanted a more efficient way to sell meat than packing millions of live animals into rail cars in Chicago and sending them eastward to be slaughtered.

ROGER HOROWITZ: And he starts wondering, well, is there a way to slaughter them in Chicago, and then ship the refrigerated meat East, rather than ship the animal East. Because if he could do so, it would be an awful lot cheaper and he’d have more control over the kinds of animals that he was then selling.

PETER: Swift built of fleet of refrigerated rail cars, cooled by ice from the Great Lakes, and packed them with sides of beef and pork. He then sent the meat out East to be sold through a vast network of warehouses up and down the east coast. Accustomed to freshly slaughtered meat, local butchers and shoppers initially turned up their noses.

ROGER HOROWITZ: But his meat is so much cheaper that consumers try it, they find out that it’s actually not that different than meat slaughtered in the cities, and there isn’t really any measurable impact of consumer resistance to his meat.

ED: Over the next few decades, Swift and a handful of other big industrial meat packers will produce most of America’s meat. Though the nuisance of urban stockyards and roaming animals disappeared, Swift’s meat empire created a new kind of unease. Americans had always known where their beef from, they saw the cattle walk into the butcher. But now the entire process was hidden and mysterious.

FEMALE SPEAKER: In the 1880s and 1890s, Americans were trying to figure out how to live in this new world they had created. And it should surprise no one that many people pondered food, because the whole food system– not just meat, the entire food system was undergoing an enormous transition because the urban population was growing so quickly. Suddenly, people were getting fruit in the winter in cans, and that fruit had come from California. I mean, that seemed like a miracle. But as with any period of intense change, there’s confusion, there’s anger, there’s fear. And it’s not a surprise that there were many complaints about the food system.

ED: At the turn of the 20th century, the federal government’s chief chemist, Harvey Wiley, began studying industrial meat, and results were alarming. He found that meat packing companies routinely sprinkle their beef with boracic acid, or Borax, to keep it from getting slimy during shipment. Now, Borax is an industrial disinfected; good for cleaning floors, not so great for your stomach. The firms also injected sausage and other processed meats with dies to give them that fresh red color.

ROGER HOROWITZ: These dyes are largely taken from the clothing industry, they’re based upon coal tar residues from production. So, essentially, you’re introducing coal tar dyes into the food. Not everybody gets sick from them, but when you have the kind of a practice, you could say you have a problem.

ED: Wiley pushed hard for federal meat inspections and for mandatory food labels. And he got a big boost from Upton Sinclair, an idealistic young journalist who covered the Chicago Meat Packer Strike in 1904. Sinclair’s reporting eventually turned into the bestselling novel The Jungle,

ROGER HOROWITZ: When he talked about the kind of work that they did and what happened inside the plants. And the often horrific conditions that would happen; he described rats falling in the mixture is for sausage, meat being knocked on the floor, and all sorts of pretty appalling conditions. And later on, he said that he aimed for the nation’s heart, but instead, he hit it in the stomach.

ED: The Jungle caused a national uproar. Soon after, at the Instigation of Progressive Reformers, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, establishing federal regulation of the meat industry.

PETER: That regulation improved the system, but didn’t change it. The basic features of the system that Swift built, packaged meat shipped long distances, remain. And so does the unease over what happens in those remote unseen slaughter houses. Only now, people are concerned about hormones and antibiotics instead of Borax. But both Horowitz and Ogle stress that returning to an earlier, simpler time just isn’t so easy. By the late 19th century, American cities had outgrown their local food systems.

MAUREEN OGLE: I do think that, in general, the food system became better, if only because there were a whole lot of people who didn’t live on farms, they needed food and they needed affordable food, because they weren’t making a lot of money. One thing that this food system did was provide a lot of food for a huge and growing population of people, many of whom who had very low incomes.

PETER: In other words, if Americans continue to top the world in meat consumption, maybe the US has the meat system its appetite demands.

Maureen Ogle helped us tell that story. She’s the author of In Meat We Trust. You also heard from Roger Horowitz, a historian at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, and author of Putting Meat On The Table.