The Business of Meat
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from All-Creatures.org

All of God's creatures have rights, a fact that most people don't seem to recognize. This includes both human and non-human animals, but not all of them can speak for themselves. As we continue to disregard the value of the lives of the billions of animals we eat, we also are destroying our air, land and water.

FROM

James McWilliams
April 2015

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My review essay appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of The Virginia Quarterly Review - Inside Big Ag: On the Dilemma of the Meat Industry. Please leave comments there.

The worst thing about sausage is that it has to be made. We know this because a generation of journalists has infiltrated North America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses to expose the apparatus that churns out mass quantities of commodity meat. American agribusiness—wreaking havoc on animals, laborers, consumers, and planet Earth—is generally understood to be irredeemable. Today, enlightened consumers wouldn’t be caught dead near a Big Mac. For what it’s worth, that’s progress.

The reformist lexicon that fuels the outrage resonates with the political right, left, and everyone in between. A libertarian Virginia farmer fumes over the “industrial agriculture complex.” An Oxford-educated activist vents that “globalized corporate agriculture” has left us “stuffed and starved.” A poet-farmer whose horse-drawn plow breaks up Kentucky soil laments how “the ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Yikes (and yuck).

Such visceral disgust makes one wonder: Just who are these people monopolizing the world’s food supply? Indeed, the strangest thing about antiagribusiness angst is that it rages full tilt without a real understanding of the machinations that empower the corporate leviathan. We’re routinely hit with dramatic visuals: the slaughterhouses, endless corn and soy fields, obesity charts, deforestation photos, undercover animal-abuse films, and battery-caged birds. But we ignore the sterile office space where the sausage-making playbook is written.

Two books—Ted Genoways’s The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business—begin to fill this gap. Genoways, a contributing writer at Mother Jones (and former editor of this publication), and Leonard, an investigative reporter, offer respective portrayals of Hormel and Tyson Foods that show how the brutality of the abattoir reflects the sangfroid of the boardroom, where cuts of a more metaphorical sort enhance the wealth of salaried executives at the expense of disposable wage workers. 


James McWilliams is the author of numerous books on food, agriculture, and animals, including The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne, 2015) and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown, 2009). His essays have appeared in Harper’s, the American Scholar, the Paris Review Daily, the New York Times Book Review, and the New Yorker online. He is the 2009 recipient of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. 


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