Tumultuous times

by Maureen Ogle
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This ‘decade snapshot” is Part 2 of MEAT+POULTRY’s commemoration of its 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.” It has evolved through the decades, and its content, title and design have been refined to reflect the sophistication and interests of today’s processing industry.

In this issue, we commissioned the expertise of Maureen Ogle, who studied the meat industry for seven years before writing and publishing “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America,” in 2013. Focusing on the 1970s, Ogle’s journey taught her that this was a decade of economic challenges for processors who faced some of the issues that are all too familiar to processors in 2015.

Tumultuous Times header in red and yellow letters
The 1970s marked a period of inflation, unemployment and challenges for the US meat industry.

The 1970s marked a period of extraordinary turmoil in the American meat industries. The upheaval, which spared no one, took many forms: A small but ambitious troop of maverick meatpackers; global famine; unemployment; relentless inflation; consumer crusades; and new dietary ideals that threatened meat’s role in the diet.

In hindsight, the tumult was inevitable. Over the previous 30 years, and thanks to World War II, the US had forged a school of diplomacy that consisted of one part guns to (at least) one part food: The US had both and would use either as necessary anywhere in the world. Food, however, was the preferred weapon. Policymakers and politicians believed that when it came to stopping the spread of communism, calories and protein worked better than guns. For the rest of the century, the American food system would be linked, inextricably, to global stability and, of course, to government policies aimed at stabilizing the agricultural sector.

Fast-forward to the 1970s. The decade opened with a dire warning from the United Nations: Thanks to a recent spate of crop failures, famine was inevitable in many parts of the world, and hunger would, of course, provoke political and social instability globally. US officials promptly sold most of the nation’s grain harvest to the highest hungry bidder – none other than the Soviet Union. As US food prices soared, furious consumers staged protests and boycotted pork and beef. But that was only the beginning of the decade’s woes. The American plan to rebuild world economies after World War II had been so successful that by the 1970s, Europe and Asia challenged US manufacturing supremacy. As US exports dropped, unemployment, inflation and interest rates soared.

BIG MEAT

For the meat-processing-related industries, escape was impossible. Inflation hammered anyone and everything in its path, from cattle ranch to corn field; from packing plant to grocery store. In the western US, a handful of meatpacking mavericks seized the moment and challenged the clout of the century-old behemoth known as Big Meat. Upstarts like Ken Monfort built sleek, ultra-automated, one-story facilities outfitted with electronically controlled conveyor belts and sorting systems – and designed to eliminate the need for human labor. Monfort also introduced boxed beef, a cost-saving innovation that other mavericks quickly adopted.

In contrast, the aging plants of Big Meat – Swift, Armour, Wilson and a few others – stood as wheezing, creaky temples of inefficiency. Their operating systems were a morass of arcane rules and job descriptions, the results of a century of micro-managerial compromises between unions and management. Indeed, Big Meat’s management was mired in the past, still scratching its head over new-fangled consumers who wanted frozen foods and self-serve meat departments. The old giants were no match for the decade’s tumult. One by one, the old guard faltered and fell, typically into the hands of new corporate overlords who knew nothing about making meat and whose ineptitude provided the mavericks with more opportunities to divide and conquer.

Life was no better down on the farm. Soaring grain prices and consumer fury translated into culled herds and farmers abandoning hogs for corn. But those were surface scratches. In the 1970s, livestock producers were still adjusting to the revolution that had transformed agriculture during and after World War II. Livestock “confinement,” for example, was adopted in the 1940s as a way for farmers to cope with labor shortages. In the 1950s and 1960s, cattle and hog producers grappled with the demands of global diplomacy and new agricultural “subsidy” programs; soaring land prices (as suburban growth and highways gobbled rural acres) and ongoing labor shortages.

In those post-war years, survival necessitated creativity. By the 1970s, the biggest and most-profitable livestock producers were operating space-age-worthy facilities and relied on a host of bio- and other technologies to breed, birth and feed cattle and hogs. Those innovators not only survived the pain of the 70s; they thrived. Their success, however, forced less-innovative livestock producers to make hard choices: Keep up with the leading-edge operation run by Farmer Jones down the road? Or sell him the farm and move to town?

THE BROILER BUSINESS

And then there was the chicken, the feisty newcomer whose competitive brawn flummoxed even the savviest meatpackers and livestock producers. The nation’s broiler industry was born during the Great Depression and forced to grow up fast during World War II. Indeed, the youthful industry experienced more technological and organizational turmoil in its first 20 years than its four-legged counterparts had in a century. The woes of the 70s? A mere blip to opportunistic survivors like Don Tyson, who were battle-hardened and ready for action.

First stop: The starving millions abroad. Broiler producers signed contracts to ship billions of pounds of frozen poultry (cheaper than beef or pork) around the world. The move earned profit, of course, and tutored broiler producers in the who and how of food-based diplomacy and global markets. Next up? The burger business. Fast-food chains like McDonald’s had been built on beef, but as meat prices soared in the 1970s, chicken elbowed its way on to the menu. The grocery chains? Pushovers: Shoppers begged for poultry products as low-price substitutes for beef and pork.

And in the late 1970s, the broiler industry received a gift from the gods: A powerful congressional committee charged with outlining new dietary recommendations denounced “meat” as unhealthy and urged Americans to eat alternative proteins. Beef sales fell off a cliff; years later, chicken was the most-popular form of meat in America. (And pork producers adopted “the other white meat” as a slogan.)

TAMING ‘BIG MEAT’

Picture of Ralph Nader that appeared in Western Meat Industry, April 1971
Ralph Nader engineered passage of the Wholesome Meat Act in an attempt to tame Big Meat.

That congressional report was written by young staffers tutored in, and crusaders for, “consumer advocacy.” They were less interested in nutrition than in taming the power of Big Meat, a project their hero Ralph Nader had been working on for more than a decade. In the late 1960s, for example, Nader had engineered passage of the Wholesome Meat Act, a law aimed at corralling Big Meat’s power. Emboldened by that success, Nader and his followers devoted the 1970s to bulldozing their way through the rest of the meat-related industries. Naderites mounted legal challenges to feeders’ use of antibiotics and hormones; petitioned for changes in labeling; argued that livestock confinement posed an environmental threat; and launched an assault on American kids’ favorite food, the hot dog. As for Nader’s Wholesome Meat Act? Big Meat could afford the plant upgrades that the law demanded. Small packers could not, and in the 1970s, dozens shut their doors; their disappearance created still more opportunities for the mavericks.

By the time the decade ended, most people in the business of meat wanted to forget it had ever happened. That would prove impossible. Indeed, in 2015 meat-makers still grapple with the consequences of the 1970s. Consumer demand for “grass-fed,” “organic” and “natural” meat? Campaigns to eliminate antibiotics, hormones, gestation crates, and confinement? Animal rights’ crusades? Condemnation of livestock production as environmental hazard? Charges that the packing industry has destroyed rural communities and exploits immigrants? All of those issues can be traced back to the 1970s. Who says history doesn’t matter?

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