In the beginning

by Steve Bjerklie
Share This:
The mission of Western Meat Industry was to address the issues of companies in the Western United States.

Editor’s note

This year MEAT+POULTRY commemorates 60 years in publishing. Founded in 1955, what was then known as Western Meat Industry, ran under the tagline of “The Monthly Business Magazine of the Western Meat Industry.” The mission for the magazine was to address the industry’s needs and address the issues of meat companies in the Western US. “The West needs and deserves its own meat magazine,” the editorial of the debut issue said. Leading off that 48-page issue was a preview to the Western States Meat Packers Association’s convention that would be held in San Francisco.


Lead-off news detailed Safeway’s new meat processing plant and warehouse in Denver. Another feature spotlighted Clauss & Kraus Inc., a growing pork processor in Sacramento, Calif.

Sixty years later, MEAT+POULTRY will be looking back, a decade at a time, throughout 2015, to provide a snapshot of the issues and technology of those days, which would evolve and ultimately affect the meat and poultry processing industry today. In this issue, we look back at the 1960s, through the eyes of Rosemary Mucklow, an industry icon whose career in the industry has spanned as long as MEAT+POULTRY’s. Mucklow’s steel-trap memory is a priceless asset when it comes to providing context and appreciation for how far the industry has come. Look for more “Decade Snapshots” in future issues.

Mucklow had come to the United States from Scotland by way of London, where she'd been a nanny (and where her sister, Margaret, had been a secretary for Winston Churchill). She knew nothing about the meat industry or the changes about to remake its landscape.

In 1961, when a young woman named Rosemary Mucklow was hired as a stenographer at a tiny, San Francisco trade group called the Pacific Coast Meat Jobbers Association (which was later was known as the Pacific Coast Meat Association [PCMA] while Mucklow was heading it up), the meat industry in the US was on the cusp of tectonic change. Mucklow had come to the United States from Scotland by way of London, where she’d been a nanny (and where her sister, Margaret, had been a secretary for Winston Churchill), and she knew nothing about the meat industry or the changes that were about to remake its landscape, not that anyone could have forecast those changes in 1961.

The industry then was still dominated by the so-called “Big Five” meatpackers – Swift, Armour, Cudahy, Wilson and Morris – brick-built companies based in Chicago that had ruled the industry like kings since early in the 20th century. Boxed beef wasn’t even a pipe dream in 1961, and boxed-beef’s inventor, the company that eventually came to be called IBP, was just a fledgling start-up in Denison, Iowa. Tyson Foods was a small, regional poultry processor. Most major American cities still supported thriving “butcher towns” in 1961; New York’s was on the site of where the United Nations building was constructed a few years later. The American Meat Institute was still headquartered in Chicago, the industry’s historical capital. And as far as food safety was concerned, the industry operated on the “sell it or smell it” premise.

Mucklow says that the big issue for PCMA in those years was labor contracts. The industry’s powerful union, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (forerunner of today’s United Food and Commercial Workers), and the big Chicago packers negotiated three-year master contracts that the union expected to be enforced at unionized meat companies across the country.

“Those three-year contracts always expired on Aug. 31, and the contracts for the San Francisco companies always expired a month later, on Sept. 30,” Mucklow remembers. “In that month in between, the union would pick out a company to target for the toughest negotiations, with the idea that all the others would capitulate.”

The union had a silent but willing partner in the Big Five, which didn’t want meat packers outside of Chicago to negotiate for lower wages. If packers in the Bay Area or Los Angeles or Kansas City got wage concessions from the union, the Big Five’s dominance, as well as the union’s power, would be threatened.

Change was in the air

Meat companies regularly wrestled with retailers — with Safeway in particular..

But in 1964, the San Francisco meat companies had finally had enough, and they took the unprecedented step of locking out their union employees for five weeks in a get-tough tactic to get a better contract. “I spent a lot of time in those days on bargaining issues, calculating wage rates and so forth. Eventually the San Francisco companies got what they wanted and it really gave them confidence,” she recalls. The victory wasn’t perceived at the time as the beginning of the end of the master-contract era, but in fact it was a first salvo in a war with the union that lasted into the 1970s, when IBP – which by then had revolutionized the industry with boxed beef and had proven that meatpackers didn’t have to be located in Chicago to succeed – broke the union’s power (though not necessarily the union’s grip) after a series of bitter, sometimes violent strikes in the Midwest. “The men who founded IBP and who fought the union back then were incredibly tough old bastards,” says Mucklow, who still carries a hint of her native Scotland in her speech. “Andy Anderson, Currier Holman – they wouldn’t back down for anyone.”

The mostly small, independent meat companies in California weren’t fighting just the union in the 1960s. On the other side of the business, the meat companies regularly wrestled with retailers – with Safeway in particular, which the packers and jobbers always thought was up to no good. “Safeway had radio ads back then claiming they sold aged beef. One of our members, Denver Meat Co., was infuriated. ‘They are not aging any beef at all!’ they told me,” Mucklow remembers.

She knew that asking Safeway about its aging practices would be useless, so in one of the first examples of the sly, brilliant strategy she has become famous for to win an argument, Rosemary asked a woman named Amy Goodell, a schoolteacher who rented the back of Mucklow’s cottage in Berkeley, Calif., to help her out. At Rosemary’s urging, Goodell wrote a letter to Safeway asking about their beef aging, and in reply Goodell received an invitation from the company to tour Safeway’s meat-cutting plant in El Cerrito, Calif.

“So, this very proper schoolteacher went down to the plant and got the full tour. They showed her everything. And at one point,” says Mucklow, “she saw some men pushing beef carcasses along a rail. She thought they might be taking the meat into an aging room, so she asked them about it. ‘Ma’am, we don’t age beef at all,’ one of the fellows told her. ‘We move it in and out as fast as we can!’” Mucklow lets out a howl of laughter at the memory. “You can bet those aged beef ads stopped right then.”

January 1955 issue of Western Meat Industry.

The Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967 was another watershed event for smaller, independent meat companies. A substantial revision of the original Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (in photos of the WMA’s signing by President Lyndon Johnson, a very old man can be seen seated in a corner near the president’s desk; it is Upton Sinclair, author of the muckraking novel “The Jungle”, which inspired the 1906 act), the WMA required that all state meat inspection programs meet the standards of federal meat inspection. At the time, most states in the US maintained their own inspection programs; Mucklow says that California’s was one of the best. Some cities, including San Francisco, also had city meat inspection.

“The Wholesome Meat Act was a very fundamental change for small companies,” she comments. “Back then in our region, only Cariani, the salami processor, was federally inspected. Now all these other companies had to decide whether to stick with state inspection, which meant they couldn’t sell their products in other states, or go with USDA. It was a very difficult decision for many of them.”

What the WMA ultimately did, however, was give state legislatures an excuse to terminate costly state inspection, and one by one the state programs disappeared. With USDA inspection as the only available option, meat companies were forced to pay close attention with what was going on in Washington. It was no coincidence that about the same time, the American Meat Institute moved its headquarters east to the District of Columbia.

Still a vivid industry presence

Mucklow, who is 82 years old now but is still, even as emeritus executive director of the North American Meat Association, a vivid presence in the industry, enjoys recalling the industry’s journey across the past 50 years. In many ways it is her journey too. She has known and worked with virtually every significant industry personality of the past six decades, from salami processors to meat purveyors to inner-city meat jobbers to those “tough old bastard” meatpackers to legendary association executives and government officials.

“I’m working on a book,” she says. “It’s going to be called “Excerpts from a Life Well-Lived”. It’ll be stories and memories, all kind of bite-size so no one gets bored. But the main point will not change. It will always be how much I love this industry and its colorful, hard-working people.”

Comment on this Article
We welcome your thoughtful comments. Please comply with our Community rules.

 

 


The views expressed in the comments section of Meat and Poultry News do not reflect those of Meat and Poultry News or its parent company, Sosland Publishing Co., Kansas City, Mo. Concern regarding a specific comment may be registered with the Editor by clicking the Report Abuse link.