Skip to content

Empire of Meat

The American beef industry was built on centuries of exploitation

Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht. Princeton University Press, 268 pages.

In 1870, advertisements for beef extract began to appear in magazines of the day. Made by Armour & Company, a leading Chicago meatpacking firm, the extract was touted as a “remedy for disease and exhaustion.” In reality a byproduct of canned beef, the new product was not greeted kindly by the market, which didn’t believe the manufacturers’ claims that this liquid could contain the same nutrition as a cut of steak.

According to Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, this was a rare misstep in the ascendance of the American beef industry. The description of the extract reminded me of heme, a key ingredient in the plant-based Impossible Foods burger, which made its debut on the market in 2016. Both promised to offer beefiness, sans beef, so that one never had to be without its flavor—whether because of expense or, in the case of the new vegan burgers, because the greenhouse gas emissions of the animal farming industry are a leading cause of climate change.

Heme, in meat, composes part of the molecule hemoglobin, which is believed to give hamburgers their color and slightly metallic flavor. In the Impossible Foods version, the DNA of soy plants is inserted into a genetically engineered yeast and then fermented. This results in both the pink color and “blood” of their patties, which have been greeted as a planet-saving miracle by the mainstream press and will soon be in every Burger King in the United States.

Impossible Foods seems to have created heme out of a belief that it’s the visual stimulation of blood oozing from a burger that gives it an addictive taste. What Specht’s book reveals about beef, though, is that its extraordinary success has always had little to do with its taste and everything to do with its ubiquity, increasing cheapness, and cultural status. Red Meat Republic doesn’t bring the reader up to date with innovations in plant-based beef, but it doesn’t have to. By laying down the political and economic history of beef production and culture in the United States, he demonstrates why the tech-meat industry isn’t spending time, money, or marketing dollars on chicken and goat.

Beef’s extraordinary success has always had little to do with its taste and everything to do with its ubiquity, increasing cheapness, and cultural status.

Beef is more American than fried chicken, apple pie, and turkey on Thanksgiving. And it has always been political, as Specht chronicles. His book’s first chapter, titled “War,” reveals the ways in which the settling of indigenous lands, fueled by white supremacy, was essential to the creation of the beef industry—as it was for many other beloved American institutions. Nineteenth-century government policy saw the Great Plains ecosystem turned from a grass-bison-nomad system to a grass-cattle-rancher one, with the Indian Wars a necessary step in the establishment of the rancher mythos. Bison herds were decimated as a practice by settlers who saw them as “monstrous,” with cattle representing civilization. Along with those herds also went the communities that depended on hunting them for survival. “Cattle ranchers and bison hunters, supported by the U.S. military, fundamentally reshaped the Great Plains,” writes Specht, “expelling American Indians from western lands and appropriating that land for use by white settlers and ranchers.” Without this process of extermination and colonization, he says, beef’s emergence as a staple of the American diet might not have occurred so readily.

Later, the advent of railroads and refrigeration saw Chicago become the center of the meatpacking industry in the mid-nineteenth century, with four companies—Armour & Company, Swift & Company, Morris & Company, and Hammond & Company—controlling much of the trade by manipulating relationships with suppliers, price-fixing, and strike-busting. “Cattle slaughter was as much about exploitation as innovation,” Specht writes, “beef distribution as much about collusion as invention.”

Despite the risky work involved in the slaughterhouses—U.S. meat workers are still three times more likely to suffer injury than other laborers—mass immigration kept them in business, a trend that continues in meat production today. And the political climate favored the meatpackers even as unions struggled to gain a foothold. “The fact that meatpacking’s profitability depended on a brutal labor regime meant conflicts between labor and management were ongoing, and at times violent,” Specht writes. State support for the beef industry’s bosses went beyond enabling the packers to abuse their workforce and extended to charges of collusion around pricing and fights against regulation that would require local beef inspection (and inevitably slow down productivity). With the help of their friends in government, the “big four” got the populace accustomed to not just cheap beef produced through centralized slaughter and an exploited workforce, but the very concept of an economy in which food that appears in local markets has traveled far and wide to get there—in other words, the way most of us grocery shop today.

Without this process of extermination and colonization,  beef’s emergence as a staple of the American diet might not have occurred so readily.

The chapter that most resonates with today’s cultural conversations around beef, though, is Specht’s final one: “Table,” where he analyzes the perceptions of class, race, and gender that have always been central to the production, and consumption, of beef. As beef became cheaper, “democratized,” elites became obsessed with the eating habits of the poorer classes. What does a porterhouse signify if even the lowliest worker can afford to have it? Specht notes this gave rise to the deeply inequitable field of nutrition science, in which the eating habits of the lower classes are discussed through the lens of health while the rich are allowed to see food as an “aesthetic concern.” But if the rich believed that the poor shouldn’t be able to enjoy their food as much as the availability of cheap meat allowed them to, the white working classes were able to get in on the judgement through the lens of race, debating Chinese exclusion in the late nineteenth century as ultimately a fight about the superiority of meat over rice. In a pamphlet from the American Federation of Labor called, appropriately, Meat vs. Rice, “meat was the ultimate symbol of the successful American worker,” Specht writes, “while rice represented the threat of persistently low wages and the victory of capital” by using racist ideas about Chinese immigrants who could “live on nothing.”     

While women of the nineteenth and twentieth century were the ones expected to buy and cook meat, beef maintained its hold on the popular imagination from the early days of ranchers as a masculine choice, an association that persists today. Just look at psychology professor and incel patron saint Jordan Peterson, who boasts of the vitality he has experienced on an all-beef diet. In his last run for senate, Ted Cruz assured voters that Democrats would “ban barbecue” if elected. More recently, in discussions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, opponents have warned that she’s “coming for your hamburgers.” When the press breathlessly covers tech-funded plant burgers for their uncanny resemblance to beef, they are inevitably propping up its centuries-old status as a symbol of masculinity, land domination, settler colonialism, and exploitation—whether they intend to or not.

The word vegetarian does not appear until more than halfway through Specht’s book, vegan not until the final page, proving the nonexistent impact these lifestyles have so far had on the beef industry. Their only power now has been achieved through mimicry. But will that mimicry stop at heme, or will it also lead to labor abuses, environmental destruction, and racism? The book on beef has now been written. A lot of impossible changes will have to occur to get beyond it.