I can’t believe I missed it: the Meat Industry Hall of Fame’s first-ever induction ceremony occurred in Chicago on October 27. And what a night it was: headlined by the illustrious Bill Kurtis—the former CBS anchor who currently narrates criminal justice shows for the A&E Television Network.
Meat industry luminaries including Don Tyson, Jimmy Dean, and the late Frank Perdue were inducted that evening, along with litigious feedlot owner Paul Engler, who you might remember for suing Oprah Winfrey over mad cow disease and getting spanked in court. By all accounts, it was a truly magical evening, what with Kurtis’ gripping keynote address offering up a 30 minute history of the American meat industry.
Despite the glitz, an undercurrent of worry pervaded the event. See, the meat industry was in the midst of its most horrific year on record, being seemingly besieged by all sides. Robert “Bo” Manly, CFO of pork titan Smithfield Foods put it best: “Anything that breathed lost money.”
Most of the meat industry’s pain was from a faltering economy that was creating countless “recession era vegetarians.” An August USDA report showed that beef, pork, and chicken production had all dropped substantially. That month, meat giant Tyson Foods warned its investors that quarterly sales had dropped 3 percent from a year before.
The end of burgers and fries as the quintessential American meal may be at hand. In America, the furthest you can possibly get from a McDonald’s is just 107 miles. But it appears the industry has overbuilt, and franchises are closing up left and right. In a sign of the times, one failed KFC was converted to a marijuana dispensary.
Nowhere was animal agribusiness’ pain more keenly felt than in the milk industry. American dairies were failing at such a rate that one observer predicted that a third would go out of business in 2009. To deal with the glut of milk, government and industry combined to organize a mass slaughter of more than 100,000 cows. Dairies spent 2009 looking for every excuse to cut herd sizes, and keep only the most productive cows. Overall, it appeared likely that more than 1.5 million cows would be slaughtered in 2009. The dairy industry’s pain was borne disproportionately by organic farmers, as cash-strapped consumers switched back to cheaper factory farmed milk.
Happily for US dairies, the USDA once again came riding to the rescue, this time with a $290 million taxpayer-funded bailout. Imagine if that money had instead been spent to subsidize the production of healthful fruits and vegetables, instead of producing more unwanted milk and nasty government cheese. Adding to the industry’s woes, agribusiness giant Cargill announced an invention that could dramatically reduce demand for milk: a plant-based substance that can be used to produce gooey, stretchy, totally realistic cheese.
The chicken industry likewise tightened its belt in 2009, eliminating its national chicken recipe contest. The grand prize—which once stood at $100,000—had been slashed to $50,000 before the contest was cancelled outright.
The pork industry had a horrifying year. Smithfield Foods’ CEO, Larry Pope, said, “I sort of feel like the world has been against us for 12 months.” In November, America’s 22nd largest pork producer abruptly quit the business. The company had an inventory of more than 30,000 breeder sows. USA Today reported in November that, starting in late 2007, pig producers were losing about $23 on each animal they raised.
Business was comparably bad at feedlots, with nearly all hemorrhaging cash. Twenty percent of feedlots were up for sale in 2009, but, given the beef industry’s bleak prospects, there were no buyers. When National Beef attempted to raise $276 million through an IPO this year, they were forced to withdraw the offering for lack of interest. The future looked even worse for ranchers in the UK, where it turned out the minister put in charge of rescuing the beef industry is a vegetarian.