At a time when people can find fault with just about anything in the world of food, one topic that inspires the most heated debate is meat. Whether you’re anti-meat, pro-sustainable meat, or just a fan of everything at the meat counter, it’s a contentious topic. Katy Keiffer, host and producer of the weekly podcast, “What Doesn’t Kill You: Food Industry Insights” on Heritage Radio Network.org, decided to tackle the issue in her new book, What’s the Matter with Meat?
This refreshingly concise book takes readers on a sickening ride through today’s meat industry, shining a light on the hard-to-dispute reasons that our current model of meat production is a disaster. Keiffer takes her wide-ranging food background—from catering to butchering to running an executive dining room, along with food writing and cookbook producing—and pairs it with knowledge gained from the myriad experts she has interviewed over the years at Heritage Radio to create a well-researched, hard-hitting read.
What’s the Matter with Meat asserts that, on a global scale, using industrial, consolidated practices, the world has traded out the true costs of meat for a cheap, daily diet of animal protein. And she explores the ways in which we purchase a hamburger for pennies, but face the countless negative consequences of a system that undervalues meat, including environmental degradation, land grabs, food safety issues, disease, violations of animal welfare and workers’ rights, corporate monopolies, and food fraud.
This immersive look at meat brings up some serious questions, which Keiffer has no qualms about addressing in her honest critique. She spoke with Civil Eats recently about large-scale meat production, the future of cultured meat, food fraud, and more.
Why did you write this book?
I have always been really interested in the meat industry. When I was a contributor to the now-defunct Food Arts magazine, they always gave me the meaty assignments, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
On a press junket with chefs, I was taken around by Certified Angus Beef in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I visited feedlots, cow-calf operations, and other aspects of the industry. They wouldn’t, however, allow me to go to the Cargill processing facility that the chefs were visiting. When I confronted them about that, they got permission from Cargill, and I was flown out on a second trip, and taken on a tour, by myself, with Temple Grandin and the various department heads.
The plant had installed a state-of-the-art biomass digester that processed and cleaned all the wastewater from the facility, generating methane to power the plant, and discharging clean water back into the Colorado River. They informed me at the time that they had plans to further develop this closed-loop system in the coming years. However, I cannot comment on what improvements they ultimately made. It was a very impressive and expensive piece of technology that has probably been replicated by other Cargill facilities at the very least.
It was exceptionally educational, and a real benchmark in a well-run plant doing everything they could to minimize stress on the animals, and to deal effectively with waste. That visit showed me how well run a meatpacking plant can be, and has been the benchmark against which I have compared other plants I have toured.
Do you eat meat? Do you think vegetarianism is an effective social action against the meat industry?
I do eat meat, and I love it. It’s delicious and nutritious. And, no, I do not [think vegetarianism is an effective social action against the meat industry]. I think the appropriate social action is to buy meat from non-industrial sources. The more people move away from buying cheap meat in the supermarket, the bigger a message it sends to the industry that their methods and products are unacceptable.
Discuss cultured meat a bit. Is this a promising solution to the problems you address in the book?
It will be many years before cultured meat becomes cheap enough and sufficiently available to become a solution to the fundamental problem of large-scale animal agriculture. The two issues that make current meat production untenable in the long term is that no company has made serious investments in responsible waste disposal, and more importantly, there is not enough available cropland to grow the feed crops necessary to keep animals in confinement. Until other food sources for chicken, cattle, and hogs are developed, we will see those industries decline eventually as they run out of land, and especially the water necessary to cultivate corn, soy, etc.
Breaking up the big meat monopolies and returning meat production to smaller-scale farming would help a lot in alleviating those two issues. The waste stream would be manageable, and beneficial to other crops, and the animals would have a more varied, and in the case of cattle, a healthier diet.
What was your experience visiting concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)?
I have never visited a hog or chicken grower, so I can only speak to the cattle experience. There are rules about how closely any [animals] can be packed in, but cattle definitely have more room than the other two types of animals.
My experience of a CAFO was not disagreeable, nor would I say that my perception of those cattle was that they were miserable. They seemed quite content, and why wouldn’t they be? They are herd animals; thus, assuming they aren’t packed in too tight, they have no objection to being close together, and they have no difficulty obtaining food.
That said, there are no doubt places where the animals are less well-treated. In the case of cattle, if they are stressed and unhappy, they respond by flooding their system with cortisol, which has an impact on the quality of the meat. Thus it is in the interest of all who raise animals, in confinement or otherwise to make sure the animal is not miserable.
You talk about the interesting, full-circle history of meat processors (five companies controlling the industry in the 1920s, then broadening out, and now controlled by just four major processors). Can you talk about why this happened?
The biggest reason is that in the last 30 years, no administration’s Department of Justice has invoked any anti-trust legislation, such as the Sherman Act, to break up these huge companies. So one company has swallowed up another, with the result that there is virtually no competition left.
In addition, the system of vertical integration, where a company owns land, seed companies, feed mills, hatcheries, genetics, etc., has really fostered consolidation. So where you might once have had multiple companies making those supplies available, now they are all under one corporate roof. This has had disastrous consequences for rural America, and as we export the model around the world, it is likely to have similar impacts on other countries.
Talk about the Food Fraud Network, which was established in 2014 in response to the discovery of horsemeat in products containing beef in the U.K. Do you think it has had an impact?
Food fraud is a $40 billion industry, and I think we will have to allocate far more financial resources to uncovering fraud if we want to see any significant improvements. Other countries also have to invest more in testing and research, particularly because of the global nature of food sales.
Food fraud is especially rampant in fish, and makes the argument for trying to buy from impeccable sources or right off the boat. The same goes for meat. In England, the big horsemeat scandal revolved around bargain hamburger meat … so cheap it was a miracle! Then it turned out to be horsemeat.
The best advice for avoiding food fraud is to do the homework and know where your food is coming from. If something seems too cheap to be real, it’s probably not.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Ground beef photo courtesy of the USDA.