Meat is a nasty business, filled with blood, guts and, yes, shit. While there’s nothing in the U.S. today that matches the hellish conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century, there is no avoiding the fact that if we want to eat meat, we need to do things that are stomach-churning for the average person: kill things, cut them up, pack the pieces into containers and ship them out.
We’ve all done an excellent job of hiding this process from our daily lives. In the time we’ve moved out of the country and into cities and suburbs (in 1910, 72 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; in 2010, only 16 percent did), we’ve both literally and emotionally distanced ourselves from the provenance of our dinners.
In her book on the history of meat production in the U.S., In Meat We Trust, Maureen Ogle notes that as early as 1870s, city dwellers were desperate to get the dirty business of the slaughterhouse off their cobblestone streets. And as cities became less industrialized and more “refined,” the sight and smell of slaughter became even less tolerable.
So we drove meat production into the hinterlands, in the process encouraging the growth of massive meat conglomerates that did much more than simply process: They grew, slaughtered, processed, shipped and marketed.
To keep up with demand, they used all the resources they could marshall to become ever more efficient at these tasks. In 2010, we consumed 34,156,000 metric tons of the stuff total. Per person, we average 270.7 pounds of meat per year, well above the world average of 102.5 pounds and second only to tiny Luxembourg.
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