Where’s the Beef?

Scholar Meg Jacobs relays the history of a forgotten federal agency which controlled the price of meat — and may have also influenced a presidential election.

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ED: Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 wouldn’t be the last time the federal government got involved in the meat business. When the US entered World War II, the Roosevelt administration asked Americans to limit their robust consumption of beef so that there would be enough to send overseas for the troops. If not, beef would become scarce and prices would skyrocket.

BRIAN: The administration tests the Office of Price Administration, or OPA, to oversee a rationing effort. This now forgotten federal agency instituted price controls and distributed ration coupons to families. Historian Meg Jacobs says that the OPA even had mascots to help motivate Americans to buy less.

MEG JACOBS: A fictional character, General Max– the idea was to make–

BRIAN: Hold on. General Max?


BRIAN: General Max? M-A-X?

MEG JACOBS: Max. M-A-X. As in, the general maximum price control. So the idea was, you had to institute prices across the board. You were just as much of a traitor to the patriotic cause if you went into the butcher shop and, you know, you know the local butcher, you’ve had this relationship with him for decades. You say, OK, I’m not going to surrender my coupons, I’ll pay you a little bit higher price.

BRIAN: You make a deal.

MEG JACOBS: Exactly.

BRIAN: Most Americans did follow price controls. And during the war, Jacob says, household incomes grew as more citizens pitched into the war effort and as they received higher wages. So, even though families rationed, even more Americans could afford to buy beef.

MEG JACOBS: And, in fact, the program worked so effectively for something like meat that annual per capita meat consumption increased for Americans across the board, but especially for those at the lower end of the income distribution.

BRIAN: But, the meat industry didn’t like the government meddling in consumer markets. During the war, packers lobbied to weaken price controls without much success. So when peacetime arrived, the government and the meat industry were primed for battle.

MEG JACOBS: It’s a real showdown that you have at the end of World War II. In fact, price controls in 1946 still exist. And you have Harry Truman saying, we need to continue price controls, because there’s a great fear, if we take them off, prices are going to soar through the ceiling. Meanwhile, the meat packing industry now takes its campaign to the next level.

BRIAN: So what do they do?

MEG JACOBS: They withdraw their product from market. They basically go on their own strike. And, what you have is the disappearance of meat from markets across the country. So, they make a decision to let their cattle grow fatter, in essence, and they stop slaughtering. So slaughtering is down 80% from where it had been a year earlier. And so, within a month, you have a doubling of the price of meat.


MEG JACOBS: And there’s this real showdown in a sense of fear and panic of what’s going to happen next. And Americans start to worry that there’s going to be a famine. They use that word, even though it’s exaggerated. And then there’s a real question, what’s going to happen in this contest of wills.

BRIAN: So who caves first, Meg?

MEG JACOBS: Truman caves first and gets rid of controls. Because what happens is, Americans who are accustom to eating their 150 pounds of meat a year and have now had this period in the war where they have all this access to meat are livid and frantic. And so, you have headlines that read, you know, “Horse Meat Consumption Soaring”. You have restaurant owners jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge because they have no meat to serve their customers. You have business really mobilized at this moment, running advertisements in newspapers that say, “Would you like a roast of beef?” And if the answer is “yes”, then the idea is, you have to support the getting rid of OPA once and for all.

Probably one of my favorite documents that I ever found in the archives is a letter from a housewife to Harry Truman. And all it says is, “How about some meat?”

BRIAN: How about some meat?

MEG JACOBS: And that really sort of captured and reflected the country’s mentality at that moment. And, indeed, October 15th, Harry Truman decides, OK, you know, we’ve lost, and he gets rid of controls.

BRIAN: Jacobs outline the consequences of this battle. The following month, voters would rush to the polls in the 1946 midterm elections. Democrats had control of the White House and both houses of Congress for more than a decade, but meat was about to change that equation.

MEG JACOBS: You know, Americans do like their meat and they do respond to immediately what’s before them, and this was a central dinner table and pocketbook issue. And some have called the 1946 election the Beefsteak Election. And what ends up happening in the elections is that, Republicans regain control of Congress that they had not had since before the new deal. And it’s a very consequential election, in which Republicans over Truman’s veto are able to pass significant legislation, not only to get rid of controls, but to roll back legislation that had given organized labor the right to organize. And so, it’s a very consequential election– the 1946 election.

BRIAN: Meg, you’re a keen observer of American culture. Why did meat play such an important symbolic role in this battle over government controls versus the private sector?

MEG JACOBS: That’s a good question. And I think you do have to look to the larger cultural context here. The greatest sign that America was indeed the greatest country in the world was that we eat more meat than anybody else. So, when you had the waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, meat was really the signifier that the America– what was called at the time the American Standard of Living. That was a phrase that meant something, not just standard of living, but the American Standard of Living. Meat was a signifier that, indeed, you could be a worker, you could be a laborer in this country, but you were living better than any of your counterpart in the world. So, people, when they go to the supermarket, the price of a pound of ground meat is a signifier of how things are doing.


ED: Maureen Ogle helped us tell that story. She’s the author of In Meat We Trust. We also heard from historian Roger Horowitz of the Hadley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. He’s the author of Putting Meat on the American Table.