The Real Hamburger Problem

Factory farming is bad for the environment, nearby humans, and yes, the animals. Progressives should care.

By Sophia Crabbe-Field

Tagged factory farmingFood PolicyLabormonopolization

Meat, although a staple of daily life the world over, is of particular salience in American culture, often connected to ideas of hypermasculinity, sports, and violence. So while awareness of the health, environmental, and animal welfare impacts of factory farming has grown, meat consumption in the United States remains staggering: three times the global average, jumping by 5 percent since 2015. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the meat industry has evaded some of the more stinging critiques and crackdowns by (mostly Democratic) politicians that other industries have confronted in recent years.

Big Meat has gotten off easy, in part because eating meat has become so deeply embedded within our politics. In an article in Business Insider from this past summer, Josh Barro lamented that “liberals can win again if they stop being so annoying and fix their ‘hamburger problem’”—a proxy for the supposed tendency of liberals to alienate voters with their moralizing about personal behaviors. Although I’d posit that his singular focus on this as the root cause of their electoral woes is misguided, he’s not totally off base either. Senator Cory Booker, a vegetarian for over 20 years, has been the subject of numerous take-downs, like this one in the New York Post: “Cory Booker’s animal rights extremism.”

Food is also a fundamental marker of “authenticity.” There are dozens of examples of politicians being chastised for “snobby” eating habits, and ordering vegetarian would no doubt be considered one of them. For example, while sitting down with Stephen Colbert in 2016, Hillary Clinton was forced to explain that her husband was not one of those “smug vegan[s].” She assured the host that she would be eating meat at the upcoming Iowa State Fair (where she later posed for pictures with pork on a stick).

I myself decided I was going to become a vegetarian at age four. I was rarely given meat as a child, but at some point early on I decided that was it. I rarely preached vegetarianism to others, aware that I myself didn’t really know how I had come to disavow meat; somehow, to me, it was just no longer food. This didn’t stop others from taunting me about it throughout my adolescence. Even as I got older, avowedly leftist friends of mine accused me of being “closed-minded.” I quickly understood the degree to which my own personal choice was apparently seen as an infringement on theirs.

Admittedly, these knee-jerk reactions against vegetarianism and animal rights do exist for a reason. Some of the more famous animal rights groups, such as PETA, have sometimes harmed the cause more than they have helped. Likewise, many trace the roots of the modern animal rights movement to Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, in which he argued that animals suffer from “speciesism,” which he compared to racism or sexism. Unsurprisingly, many civil rights advocates felt this comparison trivialized their struggles. Likewise, when the killing of Harambe the gorilla and Cecil the lion garner as much attention as the slaying of unarmed black men and boys like Eric Garner and Philando Castile, it is no wonder that some people may scoff at those who choose to fight for animal rights.

Although the above-mentioned issues no doubt factor in, what a major part of it comes down to is probably what’s been referred to as “do-gooder derogation.” In one Harvard study, researchers found that 47 percent of participants associated a variety of negative terms with vegetarians, but rated them particularly negatively after considering the judgment they assumed vegetarians were making about them. As unflattering as it is, we’re all familiar with feeling as if someone else’s more moral actions are implicitly criticizing our own less moral ones. People want to eat their meat, and they don’t want to feel bad about it.

And unfortunately, the meat industry has been working long and hard to make sure that it stays that way. For example, for 17 months beginning in 1992, the beef industry spent $42 million simply to spread the slogan “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” By comparison, the 1999 campaign by the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation for “5 A Day for Better Health,” which encouraged eating vegetables, had to make due with a public communications budget of less than $3 million. Meanwhile, the projected advertising budget for the entire “meat packing plants industry” in 2016 was a staggering $860.86 million. Likewise, the industry has fought, time and time again, to ensure that the U.S. government would not recommend any decrease in the consumption of its products; the latest dietary guidelines, released in 2016, failed to recommend that consumers eat any less red meat.

The Democrats’ language on monopoly does target agricultural behemoths. But they could be saying the same things about the meat industry.

What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that it wasn’t always this way; in the mid-twentieth century, most animals raised for meat in the United States were raised outdoors on family farms and sold at meat auctions. In the 1950s, Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson issued a warning to farmers: “[G]et big or get out.” Unsurprisingly, less than 20 years later, a few giant companies, including Tyson and Perdue, had bought up most of the means of production, forcing farmers to work for them, and under their conditions. With the help of the Department of Agriculture, these companies have continued to consume much of what remained of the traditional family farm. Now, according to journalist Christopher Leonard’s 2014 book The Meat Racket, the majority of the meat consumed in the United States is produced by just four companies: Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield.

In 2008, President Obama promised to give teeth to some of the long-standing antitrust rules that would have helped restore a level of accountability to these companies. By 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced plans to “overhaul the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration,” which has antitrust authority over the meat industry. But that same year—2010—the four largest meat companies spent a combined $5.94 million on lobbying to prevent this. The industry put together a supposedly “grassroots” movement of constituents to speak to their representatives, while companies urged their farmers to come out against the laws. Thanks to these relentless efforts, by 2011 the Administration had caved to industry pressure.

In 2014, meanwhile, the meat industry spent $10.8 million in contributions to political campaigns and $6.9 million in direct lobbying efforts. The industry’s good fortunes have also come about thanks to its acuity in creating a longstanding and cozy relationship with Washington. Michael Taylor, who became the head of the “USDA’s meat-inspection arm” under President Clinton, described finding two numbers on speed dial upon arrival at the new office he  inherited from his Republican predecessor: one for the American Meat Institute and the other for the National Cattlemen’s Association.

The effects of this influence have been far-reaching; their near monopoly on meat production has helped the four big meat companies, among other things, hold farmers prisoner to their debt, since they have little to no choice of who they can do business with. Ninety-seven percent of American chicken farmers, for example, now work with a large producer. Companies can impose whatever terms they wish, such as forcing farms to undergo unaffordable renovations or upsizing, or else lose their contract. One study carried out in Louisiana helped confirm that, as the meat industry has consolidated, the terms for farmers have significantly worsened.

Notably, factory farming’s byproducts disproportionately harm people of color and the poor. This is particularly true of hog farms. Excess manure from factory farms has infiltrated waterways across the country, causing water contamination. Contaminations of this sort have been, according to the National Resources Defense Council, linked to the killing of more than one billion fish in North Carolina, and have made numerous people sick (sometimes fatally so) across the country. Poor communities close to these farms have also dealt with incidents of toxic air, contaminated with hydrogen sulfide. Studies have even shown a link between incidents of asthma among high-school students and proximity to a factory farm.

Most importantly, data from North Carolina have shown that a quarter of people living close to the three largest hog-producing counties in the state are below the poverty line. And many environmental activists believe that these hog-production locations were chosen for the express reason that their nearby residents are poor and black, providing little pushback and a lot of cheap labor. The conditions for those who do end up employed by these companies are often atrocious; Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to claim they suffer from “systematic human rights abuses.”

Obama’s failure to rein in the industry should not, however, deter us from going after its destructive practices. The Democratic Party has since moved to the left on a number of fronts and become more outspoken about corporate transgressions. Whereas even some Democratic legislators expressed reservations over the Affordable Care Act before its passage in 2010, today 67 percent of Democratic voters support the notion of a single-payer system (up from 54 percent just this past April).

The lack of initiative by the Democratic Party on animal rights is also particularly glaring now considering the party’s recent embrace of antitrust. This was one of the main components of their Better Deal agenda released in September as part of an effort to reposition theirs as the party “on the side of working people.” Monopolies, for a time, were thought to create market efficiencies, yet ever since the failure of the big banks during the economic crisis, monopoly power has come under a scrutiny perhaps not seen since Roosevelt.

The focus on antitrust is also a smart political strategy for Democrats—a policy that allows them to attack big corporations and satisfy the left flank, while still upholding the basic premises of capitalism. Stronger antitrust enforcement would also require little new legislation; mostly, it would mean restoring the powers of existing law. Among other things, the Democrats’ proposed plan, outlined in the Better Deal section entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies,” would mean a “tough post-merger review” in order to guard against “abusive monopolistic conditions.” This review would allow regulators to bring to light many existing abuses across sectors. Were such a light to be shone on the meat industry, no doubt many alarms would sound.

The Better Deal monopoly section homes in on five key industries in particular. One of these is indeed the food industry. The document points to the “consolidation of six agricultural giants that threaten the safety of food and agriculture in America,” harming the “farmers in rural America [who] struggle to adapt to a declining farm economy,” even calling it a “corporate takeover of the farm industry.” Unfortunately, they seem to be referring here only to large agricultural companies, like Monsanto, despite the fact that the same things could easily be said about the meat industry.

Undercover videos of inhumane animal treatment have no doubt raised the profile of the issues inherent in large-scale factory farming, particularly among liberals. This, in turn, has led to an increase in the overall demand for humanely treated animals (though conditions for the luckier ones also leave much to be desired), even pushing large corporate chains like McDonalds and Wal-Mart to pledge that they will stop purchasing from any suppliers who don’t use “cage-free” hens by 2025. It is true that farmers themselves have often voiced strong opposition to any pro-animal welfare legislation that would affect their profit margins. But by attacking the large monopolies that keep them in a debtor’s prison, Democrats may be able to start changing the minds of some of those in farm country increasingly disenchanted with the President they just elected. (Trump’s budget proposal, for instance, included huge, onerous cuts to farm subsidies.) Likewise, many farmers have expressed worry about proposed changes to trade agreements like NAFTA. Tacking factory farming onto the broader push for antitrust may be a way to appease urban liberals and rural voters alike.

Even the Senate’s most high-profile left-wing senator, Bernie Sanders, has tried to justify his support for the industry, stating that he “stood with farmers.” Yet this industry evidently does not feel the same way about its workers. And it is also the industry, not vegans and vegetarians, which has foisted upon us all the unseemly decision between partaking in their racket or avoiding meat altogether. So as George Bernard Shaw once quipped, perhaps only slightly dramatically, “While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?” Although life under Trump is anything but “ideal,” I can think of no better time than now to think big and look firmly, and boldly, ahead.

Read more about factory farmingFood PolicyLabormonopolization

Sophia Crabbe-Field is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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