From industrialization and the domination of fast food to the birth of environmental vegetarianism and the movement for a conscious consumption of less and better meat…
In 1776, oppressed by taxation and worn from decades of tyrannical British rule, America’s fledgling government issued a Declaration that entitled each citizen to universal freedoms. Mere days later, it codified the daily rations entitled to each soldier: 1 pound (450 grams) of beef or ¾ pounds (340 grams) of pork, a quantity that would rank revolutionary America on par with today’s most carnivorous nations.
It was here that our country’s long, obsessive meat odyssey began. Today, through the Slow Meat campaign, Slow Food USA is working to redirect centuries of habits that are detrimental to animals, the environment and our waistlines. But first, how we got here.
The 1812 War and Uncle Sam
Thirty short years after the Revolutionary War, America again found itself needing to fill the bellies of hungry soldiers. The country’s Secretary of War turned to a New York meatpacker named Samuel Wilson for a steady supply of barreled pork and beef to feed troops fighting the British.
These boxes, labeled with the initials U.S. (interpreted as Uncle Sam, also known as as Samuel Wilson, supplier of this meat), feed thousands of grateful people. The symbol of Uncle Sam, with the iconic face we’re all familiar with, was established as the central emblem of the armed forces, but also, among the rest, a symbol of a national commitment to defend our right to meat.
Industrialization and The Jungle
After the industrial revolution, America’s railroad transportation system grew exponentially. Trains shipped animals from west to east, stopping in Chicago’s stockyards for slaughter and butchering.
In 1906, journalist Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, an inside account of the inhumane conditions for immigrant workers in the city’s meat packing plants, gleaned from Sinclair’s time undercover. It exposed serious labor violations and unsanitary conditions, leading to new food safety legislation from the federal government, but only minor improvements to working conditions.
Twenty years later, meatpacking finally unionized, but even in the 21st century remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
Fast Food Nation
When Ray Kroc launched the first McDonald’s franchise in 1956, he aimed to do away with the frills of formal dining: no china plates, cloth napkins or customization. Instead, the restaurant strived to produce a single product, the hamburger, as quickly and cheaply as possible using management techniques developed for automotive assembly lines.
He capitalized on a generation’s obsession with drive-through convenience and gradually built the company into the multinational beast that three decades later would meet a spirited resistance on Rome’s Spanish Steps.
Diet for a Small Planet
Fast food’s stranglehold on the country sparked a backlash against industrial meat’s effects on America’s environment and health. A trend towards vegetarianism materialized with Frances Moore Lappe’s outstanding 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet. It argued for a plant-based diet called environmental vegetarianism which replaces meat with specific combinations of protein-rich vegetables.
Central to Lappe’s rationale was the harm of climate-changing greenhouse gases produced en masse by conventional animal farming (up to 18% of total emissions, by FAO estimates).
The practical guide to vegetarianism and well-reasoned environmental defense made Diet for a Small Planet an unqualified success. It has sold over three million copies and is widely credited with launching the vegetarian movement in the United States.
Better Meat, Less Meat
Starting in 2006, with the publication of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, conversations around meat began to shift.
Undercover videos of factory farms went viral and pushed some producers to reform standards. A new generation of Slow Food members turned their attention to the issue and voted for a change with dollars and forks. Fast food sales declined for the first time in decades.
In the past decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of butchery as a craft, and a new respect for livestock’s integral role in sustainable agriculture. We have achieved advances in animal welfare and built foundations for fair economies.
Now is the time to continue this work and build on these foundations. Now is the time for Slow Meat: a rejection of the status quo, a joyous revolt against the industrial system.
We’re eager to keep working together.
Slow Food Usa
After the first edition in 2014, Slow Meat is now an international event – June 4-6, Denver, Colorado – and a permanent campaign comprised of many initiatives aimed at sensitizing the greater public on this issue.