In recent decades, the beef industry has undergone
a radical transformation -- the small cattle farmer has been all but replaced by
beef processing companies that own huge feedlots and industrial meat-packing
plants. One result of this concentration has been inexpensive and readily
available meat; beef now costs half of what it did in 1970. Critics have
charged, however, that the new system is inhumane to the animals and may have
created new health risks. For a look at the pros and cons of the industrialization of the beef business, here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute; Dan Glickman,
former U.S. secretary of agriculture; Dr. Robert Tauxe of the
Centers for Disease Control; Bill Haw, CEO of one of the nation's largest
cattle feedlot operations; journalist Michael Pollan; and food-safety expert
CEO of the American Meat Institute
If you look over the last 30 years, one statistic that I read said that the
price of beef today is about half, in real dollar terms, what it was in the
1970s. Does that ring true to you?
... Meat is a relative bargain today compared to where it was 10-20 years ago.
How'd you do it? Every other cost has gone up.
It has a lot to do with efficiencies -- doing what we do even better and more
efficiently; ... squeezing costs out of the process; adding value to the
product. America in general is a tremendous food success story. ... We pay the
lowest percentage of our per capita income on food than any country in the
world. In the mid-1980s, it was about 12 percent. Today it's below 9 percent.
And meat, which is a large part of our diet in this country -- meat and poultry
-- is less than 2 percent of our disposable income. That's a great success
story. We have high quality, reliable, abundant, and low-cost food in the
United States. We're very fortunate.
Historically, going back to the early part of the 20th century, we would
raise our animals in the Midwest, ship the live animals to major metropolitan
areas like Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago -- all of whom still have remnants
of their stockyards today. We would process the animals there; sell them in
sides of beef, carcass form, sides of beef, to local butcher shops. We would
cut them into steaks and roasts and sell them to consumers.
After World War II, two developments occurred. The local butcher shop began to
expand into grocery stores and regional grocery chains. At the same time, we
developed technology to ship refrigerated foods. And with the advent of grocery
stores wanting to buy their meat from a single source, and with the ability to
ship processed meat as opposed to live animals in rail cars, the packing houses
moved out of the metropolitan areas and built new facilities in the heartland,
close to where the animals were being raised. ...
The next significant development in the evolution of the beef industry in the
United States involved the transformation and the transition from shipping
carcasses of beef to shipping boxes of beef. The industry discovered that it
was much more efficient to have the processing continue at the next step in the
meatpacking plant, and reduce the side of beef to a piece of tenderloin, or a
length of New York strip steak, and ship a whole box of tenderloins to a
grocery store that only wanted tenderloins, as opposed to shipping that side of
beef with some parts they may want for their customers, some parts of beef they
may not want for their customers. It allowed us to be more responsive to the
grocery store. It allowed them to be more responsive to their individual
customers and their local markets. And it allowed us to do that at a lower
Everyone talks about one of the most important things to understand about
the meat industry is how highly concentrated it is -- 84 percent of the
slaughter is controlled by only four companies in beef. Have we gotten back to
the days of the "beef trust"?
... Most business sectors in the United States economy are fairly
concentrated, comprised of three or four market leaders that in general have
about a 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent market share. You see that happening
in the banking business, and it's been a long-standing structure in the
automobile industry. ...
So in that regard, in terms of the overall economy of the United States, the
beef industry is not much different in its economic structure. But what is
important to understand is that it is a dynamic, evolving, highly competitive
sector of our nation's agricultural economy. Four companies account for more
than 80 percent of the beef capacity in the United States. ... But 30 years
ago, only one of those big four were actually in the beef industry. Within the
last 30 years, three of the other big four have actually grown up as startup
companies, or expanded as a result of acquisition, to the market share levels
that they have today. It's a vibrant competitive industry. If you ask the CEOs
of the four largest beef companies, one concern that they have is the upstart
companies that are coming into the business, the small regional new entries
that are coming into the beef industry, who one day may have the agility, the
acumen, and the competitive instincts to achieve the market share levels that
the larger companies have today.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1995-2001
How has the industry changed since the 1920s?
We have gone away from cow-calf operators and small feedlots dominating the
production of meat. ... [Now] you clearly have a relationship where, on the
processing side of the picture, we have three or four or five very big
operations that run the show. And in the meat industry -- beef -- you have four
that control over 80 percent of the marketplace; when, in the 1920s, the
government filed an antitrust action to break up the "beef trust," I think just
five [companies] controlled about 50 percent of the marketplace. So you see, it's become
much, much more concentrated.
If we were concerned in 1920 about that kind of consolidation, why aren't we
concerned about more consolidation now?
There's a lot of concern in production agriculture. Those farmers and ranchers
who are left are very concerned about it, because ... they've got [only] one or
two sellers to sell to, and there's no competition. But the truth of the matter
is, the real reason why we haven't been so concerned as a country is because
food is so cheap in America. That is, Americans pay a lower per capita cost for
food of all types than any place else in the world. And as a percentage of
their income, it's the lowest in the world. So as long as Americans get their
hamburgers or their chicken or their hot dogs, people have not been overly
concerned about these issues of consolidation. ...
So the cost of cheap meat is ultimately going to be, in today's economy,
putting the squeeze on the small rancher?
Certainly the smaller rancher will be the most victimized by the pricing
The meat industry certainly makes the argument that we have the cheapest,
safest meat supply anywhere in the world -- and it's basically true. What is
the cost of that?
You have a system that mass-produces food. So the positive cost of that is that
nobody's hungry in America, or needs to be hungry. And by and large, you get
nutritious food, at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a
year. I mean, that's great.
The downside of it is, it's so cheap, that people kind of take it for granted,
and it doesn't tend to build a lot of respect for the things that go in for the
production of food. It also has an environmental impact, because you're now
producing, food--particularly animal agriculture -- in very large animal
feeding operations, where there's both animal waste and water quality problems.
Those are challenges primarily for state governments as well as the EPA. That
is certainly a big challenge as well -- the environmental side of the
I don't think we can go back to the old days. But I think that what the
government needs to do is it needs to make sure that the pricing is fair, that
you don't have monopolies out there, so that people don't have a chance to
compete fairly. And we probably haven't been doing as good a job in that area
as we should have. ...
[Has the consolidation of the industry contributed to food-safety
We raise animals differently now than we used to. They're raised much more
intensively; large numbers of them together. And where there is disease, it
tends to spread much faster. Therefore, it creates additional risk that we
might not have had 30, 40, 50 years ago. ... It may be better for
safety: a mass industrialization standardization probably can ensure quality
control better, because somebody's watching the product at all stages of the
On the other hand, if a problem develops, that problem becomes a much more
monumental and significant problem; if that problem will infect thousands of
animals, let's say, as opposed to one or two isolated animals. ... Where there
is a problem, the risks to the public are greater than they've ever been before
because disease, or a pathogen, can affect millions of people, as opposed to
just a few. So even though I think the systems are better today, the risks are
probably greater as well. ...
Chief, food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for
Why was there a rise in these deadly pathogens [in our meat supply] prior to
There have been a number of important changes in the meat industry over the
last 50 years. More and more animals are raised on a single farm, so hundreds
of thousands of pigs, or hundreds of thousands of chickens, may be raised under
one roof. This gives the opportunity for pathogens to spread from one animal to
And when they are transported to slaughter, animals from many different farms
may go in the same truck or the same transport freight to the slaughterhouse.
Again, there's the opportunity for the exchange of these bacteria. As the line
speeds and the general efficiency of the slaughter plants increase, there may
also be a greater opportunity for contamination to spread from one carcass to
another. I suspect that the industrialization of our meat supply opened up a
conduit for salmonella, for campylobacter, and for E. coli O157 infections to
pass through to the consumer.
So efficiency has a downside?
If we take the meat from one animal and grind it up and make ground beef, we're
including only the bacteria from one animal. But if we take the meat from a
thousand different animals and grind that together, we're pooling the bacteria
from a thousand different animals as well.
Do you have an idea how many animals may be pooled in one burger?
I suspect there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that have
contributed to a single hamburger.
What are the public health implications of that?
This is the big challenge of E. coli O157. Even if there's a low level of
contamination in ground beef, it's possible to have an outbreak of illness that
affects many people.
Former [Agriculture] Secretary Glickman said he thought the meat supply is safer today
than it's been in a long time, but that the potential for something going wrong
is greater than ever.
That's a nice way of putting it. There have been changes in the way meat is
processed and produced within the last decade that have been important, and I
think that's part of the explanation for why we're beginning to see a decline
in salmonella. But again, because the meat is produced in large central
facilities, if something goes wrong, a lot of people could be affected at
How are outbreaks today different from outbreaks in 1950?
Back in the 1950s, the usual food-borne outbreak was a church social or a
wedding reception -- something where a hundred people who all knew each other
got ill. And most of them lived in the same town. Those folks would know
immediately that there had been an outbreak.
What we're seeing now [is] that there is another kind of food-borne outbreak, which
is more subtle but has much wider ramifications. And this occurs when a
food that is distributed in many different places at once gets contaminated
back at the factory, or even back at the farm. People fall ill at about the
same time, but all over the country; they don't know each other, and they don't
know that anybody else is ill. They think they're just an isolated case.
And the more centralized our food supply gets, the more there is an opportunity
for a really large outbreak. In 1993, there was a very large outbreak of E.
coli O157 affecting the western states of the United States. That was traced to
ground beef. The ground beef came from one grinding plant, but was distributed
to outlets of a Jack in the Box chain. And there were cases of E. coli all over
the West Coast. At least 750 cases were culture-confirmed, but there were
probably lots more that were never confirmed. ...
Is modern meat in some way designed for these pathogens?
Well, nature is a wonderful thing, and there are a lot of different microbes
out there. When a new way of making a living opens up, some microbe may well
try to take advantage of it.
For example, a big part of modern food processing is refrigeration. Most
microbes won't grow in the cold, and meat won't spoil. But there turns out to
be a few bacteria that do grow at refrigerator temperatures, bacteria that find
a nice moist, cold room just the sort of place to thrive. One of these is
listeria. Listeria was not a major food-borne problem until refrigerators became a part of our food-production landscape.
Listeria has found a home in the processing plant itself, in the cold room, in
the nooks and crannies, in the mists and fogs that drip off the chiller
equipment. If something drips off the ceiling onto hot dogs or deli meat, they
can be recontaminated with a new organism that they didn't originally have. If
the meat is then packaged up and stored in a refrigerator, that listeria can
slowly grow in the refrigerator. And now there's a problem.
Given the problems that centralization brings, some people say we need to go
back to the smaller producers. Others say we need more technology to solve the
problem. What do you think?
Food can be produced safely in a number of different ways, and I think that the
big industrialized food supply of this country is probably what we need in
order to have enough to eat. There are an awful lot of us, and the efficiencies
of that food industry are what keep us fed everyday. But large-scale food
production means we need to have large-scale safety engineered in. And I do
think we need new technology in the large-scale food production to really be
confident of the safety of our food supply.
CEO of the American Meat Institute
One of the problems scientists talk about is that that concentration of
animals has led to, both in terms of the way the animals are raised, but also
in terms of the grinding of the meat, the problem of E. coli and other
pathogens spreading more widely throughout the industry. ... Has
that been a problem related to that concentration?
I'm not sure that concentration has exacerbated our food-safety concerns in the
beef industry. ... Dealing with pathogens is a significant problem. I'm not
sure that a significant cause is the concentration of cattle feedlots in our
industry. E. coli O157:H7, the primary pathogenic concern within the beef sector
today, 20 years ago that pathogen, if it existed -- and there's some debate
whether it did exist -- was not known. ... We have done a fairly good job in
responding to a pathogen that first became widely known in 1992 or 1993. We've
invested tens of millions of dollars in what we call intervention strategies,
which are basically new technologies that are in place in beef-processing
plants to further reduce the incidence of E. coli in the beef supply. If you
look at USDA test results that go back to the early 1990s on E. coli O157:H7,
you will find a consistent decrease in the incidence of that pathogen. ...
Secretary Glickman had said that the meat supply is safer today than it was
10 years ago, but because of the concentration in the industry, the way the
meat is so efficiently prepared and distributed, if something goes wrong, the
risk is monumental. And with new pathogens like E. coli appearing, doesn't that
system make us more vulnerable?
That system also makes us more efficient. That system also gives us greater
resources to identify and reduce and ultimately eliminate the kind of food-safety concern that you raise. And at the same time, that system has given us
the ability to respond to our customer needs and consumer preferences.
CEO of Kansas City's National Farms, which operates one of the
largest cattle feedlot operations in the country
Could you describe the life of the average beef cow these days?
Frequently, cows are owned in smaller groups by individuals. The calf is born;
truly a miracle of creation when this happens. ... Frequently though, the
ownership changes when that animal, the calf, is 400 or 500 pounds. And it
might well be sold to a stocker operator who has perhaps large ranchland and
grows that animal from 400 or 500 pounds to maybe 700 or 800 pounds, in which
grass is its sole source of food.
Beyond that, then the animal is frequently sold to someone else and delivered
to a feedlot where, for the last 120 to 180 days of its life, it has a very
high-energy ration based on corn. And it becomes a much more desirable eating
animal at that point. You have marbling that makes it more juicy and more
flavorful and very much in keeping with the [preferences] of human beings as we
exist here in America, at least.
The next step would be to go to the packing house, where the animal is
processed into either cuts of meat that are sold just as cuts of meat, or maybe
even highly processed lunchmeats or precooked items that are microwaveable. ...
I've seen some of these feedlots that are just enormous. Could you describe
one of these massive feedlots today.
Well, the feedlots are massive. Some of them as large as 100,000 head of cattle
at one location. And they've been driven by one thing, and one thing only, and
that is efficiency. Twenty-five years ago, we thought a 25,000-head feedlot was
sort of where you maxed out at the economies of scale. We soon found that those
were just sort of self-imposed limitations. ... I'm not sure we have found yet
where the economies of scale end. But there certainly are a number of
100,000-head feedlots in the United States. And their cost of production tends
to be lower than the smaller feedlots. ...
A lot has to be done to keep the animals healthy [when they're living in
such close quarters], right?
... [C]attle feeders, from the first, have embraced the idea that they could
learn from Ph.D. nutritionists and were willing to learn how they might feed
the cattle more efficiently, from licensed veterinarians. Consulting
veterinarians are really very much the norm in the industry, and animal health
has been a tremendous driver ... partly because of the efficiencies, and partly
because people in the industry have a genuine concern for the animals
themselves. They want them to be healthy. They want them to fare well, to
prosper. Partly because it's in their economic interest, but partly because you
really are dealing with living, breathing animals. And people in the industries
tend to think of them individually as animals that need to be cared for. ...
There certainly would be people who would be surprised to hear you
describing the sort of environment in a feedlot for cattle as something driven
by concern for that animal. A lot of people look at it and see it as not the
most humane of places, to have all these cows packed in together. Is it an
inhumane place for cattle?
I think a feedlot is not an inhumane place for cattle. Certainly there's a
dichotomy there. I mean, the animal is confined as opposed to roaming free in
rangeland. And the picture in your mind of course is not as good. And that's
where the dichotomy comes in. The animal is better fed, better sheltered,
better nourished, and watched literally daily, as cowboys ... daily ride the
pens and look for animals that have got health problems so that they can treat
them immediately. So it's a mixed blessing, really. My guess is that, could you
interview a steer and ask him whether he'd rather be out in the pasture or in
the feedlot, I think the vast majority of them would vote to be in the feedlot.
Well, a very nutritious and very palatable diet is delivered to them upon
demand whenever they want it. If health problems come up -- which do in all of
us, as humans and other animals -- they're treated immediately. All of their
wants and needs are really taken care of in a very pampered sort of a way. ...
We've been describing this concentration -- both economic, within the
industry, and the concentration of how the animals are raised and slaughtered.
Has that created an environment that ultimately has made food less safe?
I think there are several issues, and they're conflicting issues at stake here.
Certainly the mixing together of animal parts -- particularly in ground beef --
if there is a contamination, does spread it more widely. There's no question
On the other hand, I think that if you spent much time in a major packing house
... you'd find that the sanitation practices are very strict, very well
observed, very well monitored by government inspectors -- and probably a very
good thing. Our ability to communicate aberrations, as we all know, has
increased exponentially. And there are aberrations; there are problems. But I
believe that the United States has the safest food supply of any nation in the
And to a great extent, that's been enhanced by the consolidation, so that you
have large entities that are able to concentrate, that are able to spend the
money on sanitation devices and practices, and have the capitalization to be
willing to focus on it, as opposed to maybe cut some corners for a smaller
Former Secretary of Agriculture [Dan] Glickman said to us that meat today is
safer than it was 10 years ago. It's the safest food supply in the world, but
that the potential for something going wrong is enormous because of this
concentration. ... If you have a new pathogen or something we're not looking
for, because of that efficiency and because of how quickly it is disseminated,
the potential for something going wrong is probably bigger than ever. Do you
agree with that?
I think the potential for something going wrong is in fact less than it's ever
been before. The potential for wider distribution of a problem when it occurs
is probably greater than it's been before. I'm not quite sure that I know how
those two cancel each other out or don't. ... The important thing is that we
have the safest food supply in the world. ...
One of the things that's fascinating in having been in production agriculture
for about 30 years to me is that consolidation concentration becomes kind of
the whipping boy for a populist attitude -- that surely if we could just go
back to the small family farm, the idyllic rural life, that things would be
better; not only for the people living out that life, but for the people
consuming the product. That's a gigantic leap of faith that in fact those
things would occur that way.
I think the more decentralized and the smaller the operation, the less capable
that operation is of taking all of the precautions that need to be taken, on
The conflict is always going to be there, because watching American rural life
disappear is a painful thing -- not only for the people who are in the process
of disappearing, but for the public who really wishes that that way of life
[would continue]. ... It's sort of a wistful thing to watch that disappear and
wish that things could be different.
New York Times Magazine contributing writer; on March 31, 2002, the magazine published Pollan's article "Power Steer," which traces the life of a cow destined for slaughter
When it gets to the feedlot, [a cow's] life changes in a substantial way. It
will never see any grass ever again. ... A feedlot is a city of cows. I saw
several of them in western Kansas, and it was a stunning experience. You're
driving down these ramrod straight roads through Kansas, and it's just empty,
empty prairie. And suddenly there was this giant subdivision, only it's a city
for animals. It's cattle pens, black earth, as far as you can see. Of course
it's not really earth, you learn as you get a little closer; it's manure,
reaching to the horizon.
[There are] 35,000, 50,000, 100,000 animals in the space of a couple of hundred
acres. And in the middle of the city is rising the single landmark, which is
the feedmill. It's several stories high. It's silvery. It's sort of this
cathedral in the midst of this, and everything rotates around it. ...
But they really are medieval cities in many respects, I realized, because they
are cities in the days before modern sanitation. They're from the time when
cities really were stinky. When they were teeming and filthy and pestilential
and liable to be ridden with plague, because you had people coming from many,
many different places, bringing many, many different microbes into a
concentrated area where they could spread them around.
The only reason this doesn't happen in the city of animals, the modern city of
animals, is of course the modern antibiotics. That is the only thing
that keeps the modern feedlots from being different than the 14th-century
city where everybody was dying of plague. We can, to some extent, control the
disease with drugs. Absent the drugs, these places would be as plague-ridden
and pestilential as a 14th-century city. ...
Every hour I was on this feedlot, another tanker truck came in filled with
liquefied fat. Another one with liquefied protein. Every hour there was another
truck with 50,000 pounds of corn. You see all the feedstuff coming into the
city, and you see the waste going out. The wastes, by and large, are manure,
trucks coming in from farms carrying it away. But a lot of this was pooled in
these lagoons, which were just full of this.
I haven't even mentioned the smell. I mean, it is overwhelming, the smell of
these places. ... You get used to it, after a couple of hours, but initially,
it is [overwhelming]. And it's not the smell of a cow on a farm. This is the
smell of the bus station men's room. It's fierce. And you wear it in your
clothing for days afterward.
It sounds rather disgusting the way you describe it. What's the purpose,
what's the advantage of the system?
It's a wonderfully efficient system; it's a factory for producing protein. What
it does is, it takes in corn and fat and vitamins and drugs, passes through
that mill, which in a way is the hub of this factory, and then passes it
through the bovine digestive system. And these animals put on three-and-a-half
to four pounds a day, half of which is edible meat.
So it is an excellent factory for producing meat. And the factory farm metaphor
makes perfect sense. You've got cheap inputs, more expensive outputs, although,
the margins are very tight. It costs about $1.60 a day right now to keep an
animal on a feedlot, which seems pretty cheap for 32 pounds of food, all you
can eat. But nevertheless, the price of meat isn't very high, either. So they
operate on very tight margins. ...
Food safety expert hired by Jack in the Box after the E.
coli outbreak of 1993
Some people have said to us that [pathogens in the meat supply are] in part
a result of the huge centralization that we have now in the preparation and
production of the meat. Do you see that as an issue? ...
Well, it can broadcast these pathogens. If you get a number of animals in a
feedlot and one of them has a pathogen -- it's a shared community, you know,
water troughs and everything -- they can be spread within the animals. The
larger plants produce more product, and consequently, if a problem gets in, it
can be broadcast to a bigger spectrum of people.
Although today I would also tell you that another piece of this is that we have
better detection capabilities. So we can look at levels way better than we used
to. What does that mean? It used to be it took a lot of organisms, a lot of
bacteria, to be found. Today, one of those little guys is findable with some of
this technology that we have. ... We have gene probe analyses that we can look
for genetic material from these bacteria, like DNA testing.
In the old days, you had to take some stuff out and put it on a plate and grow
it, and see what grew, and maybe pick a few off and isolate them. It's a very
analytical, bench-driven system. Today we've got terrific technology that
enables us to find things at very low levels.
... But at the same time, if you had a diseased cow, the 10 people who ate
it got sick. Now, because of the way the food system works, that cow may end up
in far more products sent out to 30 states in a week.
That's true. So it's the case of one animal that's problematic creating a
larger problem. That's why the up-front control systems are all the more
important. If you are going to bring these animals to a larger venue where it
can be spread more widely, you need to control their access, make sure that
there's not a problem. And then you need to monitor to make sure you haven't
created that problem, which is what our microbial testing programs do. As I
said, they can't guarantee zero. But they're designed to make sure that waves
of problems do not enter our food supply. ...
Isn't there ... an inherent risk in such a centralized food system? We
certainly see it now in terms of the bioterrorism threat and concerns about
that. The fact that we have consolidated so much makes it so vulnerable. In the
old days, the smaller plants, the food could have been safer.
That's a widely held notion, ... that the small plants were safer, slower, and
that the old days were better, and that now it's riskier. That's actually not
true. ... The reality is the new plants, and the big plants, and larger people,
have more money to spend on technology. And I'm not saying small is bad. There
are people that have small plants [who] do a great job, but it's harder to do it
without these technologies that are available to you. ...
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