“In Meat We Trust” author keynotes animal-welfare conference

by Joel Crews
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Author Maureen Ogle found that meat has played a unique and prominent role in American life.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the opening session of the 2014 American Meat Institute Foundation’s Animal Care & Handling Conference, attendees heard firsthand details of an author’s journey and the surprises she encountered as she researched and published a book about the history of the meat industry. Maureen Ogle, Ph.D., wrote “In Meat We Trust: A History of Meat in America,” after exhaustively researching the subject matter for years. She is a historian, this was her fourth book, and like most of her other literary projects, the topic was completely foreign to her.

“I prefer to write about things I know nothing about,” she said, adding that at the outset of the seven-year project, she had no agenda whatsoever. At the age of 61 and about six months into the process, she realized how much she didn’t know.

“I knew nothing, and I mean nothing, about how food gets on my table and I especially knew nothing about meat.” However, like the other books, including her previous one, “Ambitious Brew: The History of American Beer”, Ogle’s goal was to explore how the topics influence the experience of living in America. A couple of years into her research and a couple years after Michael Pollan’s book, “The Ominvore’s Dilemma,” was published, it became apparent: “Meat is a really contentious subject in America,” said Ogle. And it seemed overtly apparent that Pollan’s book had something to do with the controversy. This started shaping the direction of her book, she says because of the absurdity of what has become known as the “food debate”, which she claims is not a debate at all. “It’s a shouting match of irrelevancies and half-truths.”

She said she became curious about the motivation behind the movement that caused so many people to disapprove of the businesses represented by the hundreds of attendees sitting in the audience at the 2014 Animal Care & Handling Conference. Two of the more polarizing topics, she said, included antibiotic use and animal confinement. Ogle realized “If I’m going to write this book, I better investigate these contentious topics.”

Through her research, it became apparent that meat consumption has played a unique and prominent role in American life and that role dates back to the Colonial era. Because meat played such a prominent role even before America was formed, it was an influencing factor in how land was used in the formation of the original colonies and early Americans’ sense of entitlement when it came to making meat a main component in their diets. As she developed the content for the book Ogle ended up devoting about half of it to explaining when and why Americans started using antibiotics. The second half of the book focuses on “how we got to where we are today,” she said, including the reasoning behind transitioning livestock production from open pastures to more confined areas. She also delved into the history and reasoning for large-scale farms replacing family farms. Ogle wanted to know what was the big argument about. Reiterating that she did not go into this project as anything but an historian, Ogle said she learned that antibiotics were originally used in the 1940s to replace protein supplies that were being lost because of America’s involvement in World War II.

Likewise, she discovered that livestock confinement evolved and became more prevalent because during the industrialization of America, land became very expensive and worth more as residential real estate and commercial properties than it was as pastureland. Farmers were forced to confine animals as a cost-controlling measure, but also to protect the growing numbers of roaming livestock from predators. Ogle learned through her research that prior to the flurry of environmental legislation passed in the 1970s that confinement was widely regarded as a superior means of protecting the environment. “My whole agenda was to discover the historical roots of these things that are now commonplace.”

“I was not surprised that the book was not received particularly well,” says Ogle, admitting that the book did receive some good reviews and some reporters were willing to listen to her when they interviewed her about the project. However, by the time the book was released, about 12 months ago, the “Pollanites had already commanded the agenda.” From farm to fork throughout the food supply chain, Ogle told the audience, “You all are in a headwind and that headwind is being propelled by the followers of Michael Pollan, who think you are evil and trying to destroy the planet.” The widely accepted notion that corporate agriculture’s insatiable greed is behind everything that is wrong with agriculture today is simply not true, according to Ogle’s extensive investigation. After seven years of research, she said it is clearly evident that consumers are the drivers of the agenda when it comes to livestock production and meat processing. “Consumers all the way back to the Colonial days have demanded meat as often as they can get it,” she said. America’s abundance of food is part of its fabric and history and the industry has responded accordingly.

“Since the Civil War era, Americans have been centralizing, streamlining and automating the system of livestock production and livestock slaughter,” she said. And since the Colonial period, farmers and meat suppliers have been feeding global consumers, a fact she said dates back to the 1600s. It is this global demand and domestic expectations for an abundance of meat that has created the situation today that many find unacceptable and place blame at the doorsteps of a handful of large meat companies.

It’s a miracle that the current food system feeds so many people across the world, said Ogle, but in another way it’s not so miraculous because the food supply chain is “ a system that has been built up to serve an urban population and an increasingly urban planet, and it works remarkably well.”

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