Friday, November 08, 2013

Maureen Ogle's history: In Meat We Trust

Maureen Ogle's new history of the meat industry is In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  I enjoyed the many biographical summaries of leading industrial innovators (from Gustavus Swift to Coleman Natural Meats) and their critics (from Upton Sinclair to Michael Pollan and Michael Jacobson).

The book's most sound overall theme is that American consumers appear to demand contradictory things (perfect safety and environmental sustainability and yet low prices and massive quantities).  Ogle appeals to consumers to become more informed rather than throwing stones from afar.  In part, I think these contradictory demands arise because different consumers have always had different opinions, including sometimes well-motivated support for and concern about meat in general and industrial meat in particular.  Ogle instead treats these contradictory opinions as the ignorant and schizophrenic demand of a single personified American "we."  For example,
"If meat's American history tells us anything, it is that we Americans generally get what we want.  Meat three times a day? No problem.  Meat precut, deboned, and ready to cook?  There it is....  Organic, grass-fed, local pork and beef?  All yours, as long as you don't mind paying the price or taking the time to find it....  We're a complicated group, we Americans, and we struggle to reconcile our conflicting desires and passions."
In the end, Ogle ends up deeply skeptical of food system reformers and admiring of meat industry innovators: "So, thanks, Big Ag -- and the USDA and family and corporate farmers -- for giving us the cheap food that has nourished an extraordinary abundance of creative energy."  Here is a favorable review and interview by Chuck Jolley at Drovers Cattle Network.

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