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photo of hawinterview: bill haw

What is a feedlot? Explain this to me.

A cattle feedlot is a place to which cattle are shipped [when they're] anywhere really from 500 to 800 pounds, in which they go from a diet of predominantly forages -- ... grass that they eat on a ranch -- to a highly concentrated high-energy ration, which accelerates their rate of growth and also increases their palatability, their tenderness. So you get a better product faster. ... They're very, very efficient areas in which the cattle are penned individually, fed a very scientifically derived ration in order to increase both efficiency and palatability. ...

What would be useful is if you could describe the life of an average cow or average cattle these days. I don't think people understand the steps from farm to fork.

... Frequently, cows are owned in smaller groups by individuals. ... 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.

Bill Haw is the CEO of Kansas City's National Farms, which operates one of the largest cattle outfits in the country. His office is located in the old Kansas City Stockyard Building, once home to the second-largest cattle-trading and packing center in the world. Here, Haw gives a sweeping overview of the beef industry over the past 50 years, explains why he thinks feedlots are ultimately "humane," and discusses the controversy surrounding the use of antibiotics in cattle.

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. ...

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.

What is the goal here in a feedlot?

The goal of the feedlot is really at least twofold. One, it's to increase the efficiency with which the animal goes from 700 or 800 pounds to 1200 or 1300 pounds -- not only the speed with which they attain that weight, but the efficiency, the cost efficiency.

And the other role is to increase the palatability of the product, because an animal that's finished on a high-energy ration is much more tender, much more flavorful, more juicy, and much more in keeping with the American taste.

This is a relatively new thing. I mean, cattle weren't fed corn until the 1950s, really, right?

Cattle began to be fed corn in large feedlots beginning somewhere around the 1950s. ...

It struck me, though -- with the growth of the feedlots and the corn-fed beef -- in a sense, the beef that we know and love today and the taste is actually different than it was for our grandparents. The corn-fed beef is a different taste.

I'm not sure that the beef has changed all that much. It may have. Obviously, my memory only goes back to my own personal frame of reference. But cattle were always originally fed by people who already had the corn. And they tended to feed them to very, very heavy weights, because they kind of tended to feed them until the corn was all gone.

So you did tend to have a fatter animal, an animal than you do now that was perhaps more heavily marbled many years ago, when farmer feeders dominated the market. There's a very closely calculated point of efficiency at which the animal becomes less efficient, and therefore it's more desirable to market it.

So there may a slight difference in palatability, eatability of the animal, but probably not very much.

But my understanding is that part of the move towards corn-fed came about in part because of the corn surpluses that we had and the efficient use of those with cattle. Is that how it evolved?

I think the evolution of the corn-fed beef really was driven to a great extent by the farmer's insatiable desire to produce more and to have a market for that which he produced. This has happened in a number of industries in which we almost make up reasons to consume the product that we want to produce in the first place.

The interesting thing was, though, that as the farmers fed more corn and fed the cattle longer, the public began to demand that product, because it was so much more of a desirable product than the grass-fed beef ... because it's more tender. Marbling occurs to a much greater extent with a high-energy ration. And marbling, which is the internal fat in the beef itself, is really what drives the flavor and the tenderness and the juiciness to a great extent. ...

I've seen some of these feedlots that are just enormous. They're cities of cattle. Does that surprise 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.

Surely it's not natural to raise 100,000 head of cattle together. That can't happen on its own.

Obviously, tremendous concentrations of herd animals are not an unnatural thing. The bison herds have been estimated to be in the many millions, and individual herds in the many hundreds of thousands. ... But the fact is that those animals didn't generally grow and prosper on a high-energy ration based on grain. They tended to be forage eaters all of their lives. So the change really has been the change in the ration, and certainly the confinement of the animals. ...

But also by technology. To keep one of those feedlots operating efficiently, you have to give antibiotics to the cattle. A lot has to be done to keep the animal healthy, right?

The efficiencies really have come together in a very beautiful way in the cattle feedlot industry, in that cattle 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.

So those technologies of nutrition and veterinary health have been embraced always by the industry. They've embraced the computer tremendously well to monitor performance and be able to measure performance. So it's an industry that's very much agrarian, but an industry which has willingly sought out and utilized technological evolution.

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.

So cattle are actually couch potatoes?

Cattle, given the opportunity, become the ultimate couch potatoes.

I hadn't thought of it that way. Recently in the news, we've heard about the enormous use of antibiotics within these confined feeding operations and the potential problems of that. First of all, why are antibiotics used in a feedlot?

Antibiotics have been used historically in a variety of ways in feedlots. And I think the way that has become controversial and is virtually eliminated now from the industry is that certain antibiotics at very low levels tend to be a growth promotant for the animal. That phenomenon was sort of accidentally discovered, I think, and used at low-grade, feed-grade levels to promote growth in the animals.

The concern is that low-levels of antibiotics will, by some theories -- and I think there's certainly some logic behind it -- cause bacteria to become immune to those antibiotics -- and that might be passed on to humans by consuming the beef. I don't think there's any scientific evidence to corroborate that, but it's not an illogical theory. So the feed-grade use of antibiotics has been radically curtailed over the last number of years.

The other use of antibiotics is to treat specific illnesses in the animal. I don't think there's much controversy on that. ...

But you don't believe that the low sub-therapeutic antibiotic feeding to increase weight is problematic, in terms of developing antibiotic resistance?

On the contrary. I believe that's a legitimate theory. It's a theory that has not been proven. But I think there's enough danger that it could be [and] that we should be very, very careful in using sub-therapeutic level of antibiotics.

So why is so much of it still used? I understand that nearly half of the antibiotics produced in this country are used for animal feed.

I think maybe the percentage of antibiotics that are used in animals is not necessarily in animal feed, but to a much greater extent is being used in specific treatment of specific illnesses in animals -- which, again, I don't think is a controversial issue at all. So it's very easy to confuse the sub-therapeutic use with the actual specific use for an animal who is sick. ...

Do you think that there isn't enough evidence that antibiotic use develops resistant bacteria?

First of all, I believe that the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics does in fact improve the rate of growth. The question in everybody's mind -- and in my mind, too -- is whether or not the possible consequences of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics are worth taking the risk. And the risk, of course, is the possibility that bacteria strains will become immune to those antibiotics. ... I don't think there is any hard evidence that that immunity is transferred to humans. But the possibility of it is an awesome thing.

How much are antibiotics used in feedlots today for weight gain?

I think you'd find that the use for weight gain had dramatically been reduced. ... I don't think it's been eliminated. But I think the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics is continuing to be restricted. And I think we'll find that more and more -- certainly in our company -- the use of antibiotics indiscriminately for any reasons has been virtually eliminated.

How can we show that? Because actually even getting the figures to how much of the antibiotics are used in the feed has been extremely difficult. There are no good numbers on it.

I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I know what my experience is. I know what our company's experience is. And I know what my conversations with others in the industry would indicate. There's a real concern that we want to act responsibly. We should act responsibly. And I think the industry is very quickly coming to that realization. ...

One of the things that comes up ... is that corn is not a natural feed for cattle. Therefore, it has increased the acidity within the digestive process and there tend to be significant problems with liver abscesses and whatnot in cattle that have been fed corn, as most of ours have today, and that if you got rid of the antibiotics, that would become a much greater problem.

Has this system we've developed -- putting the cattle together, the dependence on corn -- created this system that is also dependent upon this sort of chemical and technological intervention to keep it going?

I think certainly there are issues of pushing the animal beyond what its normal growth rate would be. When you're in the feedlot, you do increase the rate of growth from perhaps two pounds a day to more than three pounds a day. And there are consequences to that in the health of the animal -- predominantly in the liver, as the most obvious side effect of that. I think what we have found in the industry today is that the liver is not a very economically viable part of the animal. There's been a willingness to sacrifice the quality of the liver for the overall growth of the animal, which far transcends the value of the liver that may be damaged in the process.

But doesn't this create sort of a new issue of what is both sustainable and humane?

Obviously, there are questions of humane treatment of animals and sustainability and economic viability, all of which are certainly critically important issues. I'm not sure that there's any issue that having the animal eat what he likes the most is inhumane. I personally believe it would be inhumane if someone told me I couldn't eat ice cream anymore even though it may not be the best thing in the world for me. So I think the question of humane treatment and high-energy feeding of the animals are not necessarily a valid issue.

There are some who argue that grass-fed beef is healthier for humans as well -- that the fat comes from a different source that is easier for us to digest. Do you think that grass-fed beef is healthier for us?

I really don't think that grass-fed beef is more healthful for us. I think the changes that we've made in attitude toward beef have had more to do with trimming off external fat. ...

The American public has cast its vote resoundingly that it prefers [corn]-fed beef to grass-fed beef. It does tend to be more tender. It does tend to be more flavorful. The grass-fed beef does not have as much external fat. It does not have as much marbling. It does not have as much total fat. But the preference vote is in and it is clearly for corn-fed beef. ...

[How did the] industry used to work when Kansas City and Chicago were the hubs? Most people don't understand that.

I think a number of factors came into play. The large metropolitan cities were a center for immigrants, who made up much of the worker population in the packing plants, so there was a readily available labor supply in the major cities. Going back to the origins, refrigeration didn't exist, so you had to have the packing plants close by to where the meat was going to be consumed. You had the rail lines converging, [and] a highly fragmented industry in which cattle came in small quantities from a variety of sources.

All of those sort of things came together to make it make a lot of sense for large packing operations to exist in major metropolitan centers.

People talk about the "beef trust," going back to the 1920s or whatever. Who was the beef trust, and what role did they play in the industry at the time?

The beef trust is a name to describe, really, a monopolistic practice as perceived of a few large packers who were believed to control the markets. And as always in a populist kind of attitude, everybody felt that everybody was being disadvantaged by that -- sellers of livestock, laborers, and everyone else.

Were they [being disadvantaged]?

Probably so. [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle, of course, is the classic novel about the beef industry -- the packing industry, not just beef -- and all of the things that were probably wrong with it at that time. It was a time of robber barons and industrial giants, whose attitude toward business might have been a little more harsh than it is today. ...

What was wrong with the beef trust?

I'm not sure I know what was wrong with the beef trust. Again, there was a point of view that terrible things were going on. Probably the most focus was really on the possibility that immigrant labor was being abused; and probably they were, to some extent.

On the other hand, people who came to America came willing to work. They came with fewer alternatives from whence they came, and they lived the American dream. In many cases, they really brought themselves up from very undesirable conditions and working conditions and pay. They lived out the American dream in many cases, and it gave them an opportunity to step up.

How has the industry changed in the last, say, 40 years? ... Explain to me how we went from that system you just described to what we have today.

Well, a lot of things happened. First of all, the ... packing plants [moved] out from the urban centers to rural areas close by the large feedlots. And what happened there really was kind of a re-creation of what had happened 50 years before, when the immigrant labor became a dominant characteristic of these plants. But this time they were Asians and Hispanics, as opposed to Eastern European people who came in. ...

The unions played a less dominant role as that transition occurred. Packing plant average wages actually come down during that period of time. But by the same token, particularly [for] the Asians and the Hispanics, there are so many cases when they came and lived in their car and worked for low wages and their kids ended up going to medical school. So, once again, it was sort of a re-creation of the same phenomenon in a different place.

Bad conditions? That kind of thing, too? It's tough work.

It is tough work. And it's essentially dehumanizing work. There's a lot of blood and a lot of heavy activity that goes on. I think the packing plants have dramatically improved their working conditions over a period of time.

It's a low-margin business, and I think the temptation certainly was to drive their people very hard, at one point. But I visited with a major packer just last night, as a matter of fact. And their turnover, for instance, has dramatically slowed down. They're retaining workers better. Working conditions are becoming better. There's a great sensitivity to things like carpal tunnel syndrome.

So I think as evolutions occur, we've got another one occurring in which conditions are better, pay is better, and a number of immigrant people have really been able to live out that American dream -- if not in their generation, in their children's generation. ...

Describe [the slaughterhouse] for me. People really don't know what it's like in there.

Well, the slaughterhouse is not a pretty thing. I mean, it's a necessary process. It's a highly efficient process. But it's not now, nor never will be, a very pretty thing. Animals come there to die, to be eviscerated, to be decapitated, to be de-hided -- and all of those are violent, bloody, and difficult things to watch. So your first and foremost impression of at least the initial stages of the packing house are a very violent, very dehumanizing sort of thing.

But the fact is, we are meat eaters, most of us. And it's a highly efficient way and a reasonably humane way. The animals are rendered unconscious before any of this happens. I think there's a concern for humane treatment of the animals. But the process itself is a violent and unpleasant sort of thing. ...

As you progressively go down the chain ... it becomes a less violent, a less bloody, a less difficult thing to watch, and really becomes kind of a miracle of efficiency as that live animal is reduced to a carcass and the carcass is reduced to parts that we're very familiar with in eating. ... The economies of scale, the mobilization of capital -- all of those things that drive businesses are very much at work in the packing industry. ...

You describe it as this difficult environment for the animal, to some degree. What about for the worker? I understand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it's the most dangerous job in America.

Certainly worker safety historically not been as good as it should have been in the packing industry. It is becoming better and better -- both humanely driven by the management of the packing companies, and very selfishly driven by the fact that the lack of safe practices can become an incredibly expensive thing. So packers have continued to develop better safety practices, individual automation of individual acts that reduce the stress on the individuals working in the packing business. It is still a tough way to make a living; a difficult job.

Particularly with the line speeds; they're fast, people are in close [quarters], they're wielding knives ...

The line speed is, of course, an issue that people are concerned about. The faster the line goes the more efficient the operation is, certainly, up to a point. But also the speed with which the working people are required to work increases. The trick is to find that balance between efficient and reasonable production, and going beyond that point to where you endanger the workers who are working with knives, with sawing devices. And you can protect them with chain mail and gloves and other equipment. But they're still working with knives and other cutting devices that, as people become more fatigued, become more dangerous. ...

Does the hamburger represent the beef industry in some way? Has it become the engine of the beef industry? ...

Well, the hamburger is an interesting thing. And it certainly has been a driver in the business. Fifty percent of the beef animal ends up as hamburger. And the American public has an apparently insatiable appetite for hamburger. ... But the convenience of preparation, the low cost, have all contributed really to hamburger being a driver. ...

The hamburger is essentially a way of disposing of the less valuable parts of the animal in a way that the consumer has really accepted -- much as the dark meat on chicken has been essentially a secondary, almost an offal product. You can't have breast meat without having dark meat. ...

What has been the relationship between the fast food companies and this concentration that we've described over the last 40 years?

... As the fast food operations have become more ubiquitous, [packers have] had a need to compete better than they did at first. They need new products. They need products that the consumer will flock to. And so people like Tyson Foods invented the chicken nuggets -- the ultimate convenience food. ... There's been a great interrelationship between the fast-food industry and the packers -- first in the poultry business, then in the pork business, and more recently in the beef business.

They've fed off each other?

Absolutely have fed off of each other -- through economic necessity. ...

A cheap product has driven this market?

It really has driven the market. It has been marketed as a commodity in the beef side particularly. I guess 30 or 40 years ago, the poultry people, driven people like Don Tyson, recognized that their real opportunities were to quit being in a commodity business, but to be in a differentiated product business where they would create products that were convenient, tasty, easy to handle. I think they recognized the fact that women were coming into the workplace as opposed to being willing to spend hours in the kitchen preparing food. ...

So 30 years or more ago, the poultry business evolved away from being a commodity business into being a consumer-driven business. ... It's happened more recently, in perhaps the last 10 years, in the pork business. And the beef business is now sort of being dragged kicking and screaming into recognizing that the money isn't really in producing a commodity. It's in recognizing the consumer demand and filling that consumer demand.

Why are they kicking and screaming about it?

Because as an industry, the packing industry [people] are tough, rough, maybe kind of throwback guys, who [think that] maybe all this advertising and concern about what the housewife or whoever does the cooking in the home wants to do is kind of really sissy stuff, and not appropriate for a rough-tough packing house kind of guy.

But we're all human beings, and we're all molded by cultural situations that we've evolved in as individuals. And it's just been a little harder for the beef packing industry to evolve into being concerned with all this sissy stuff like labeling in advertising and responsiveness to consumers.

It's sort of driven by the ethic of the cowboy?

Very much so, yes. Very few people, as somebody said last night, go out and buy a ranch to raise chickens. The romantic, historic attraction -- worldwide, really -- attraction to the cattle business has driven our business way too much. ...

... Has the industry become too concentrated in some way? Are we back to the days of the beef trust?

I don't think we ... have become too concentrated in the beef industry. If you're willing to step back and look at the figures and know the players, I think the competition between these few dominant packers is extremely intense, extremely personal.

And if you look at price patterns over the last 20 years, you find that supply has driven price almost perfectly. Although we in the business, when times are good and prices are high, think that we can over-produce and get away with it, the fact is as supply increases, price goes down: classic Adam Smith economics.

And if you go back and recreate the relationship of supply and price over the last 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, you'll find that that relationship is almost perfect. ...

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 about that.

On the other hand, I think that if you spent much time in a major packing house, you would get a sense that there's really a driving need for sanitation, particularly in the beef business, which in many ways is differentiated from the poultry business. 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 world.

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 operation. ...

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 one hand.

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.

But many argue that we are losing a lot by losing the family farmer. We're losing strength in diversity, safety in diversity, a viable way of life -- that that somehow actually is a more sustainable system.

That's an interesting thing. I've chosen to live my life for a very long time involved in production agriculture. I do it to a very great extent because of the intrinsic importance of the act itself. And I think people who farm and create food from the beginning point do tend to be driven by that need to be involved in this incredibly intrinsically important act. ...

But the fact is the American people have made choices. And the choice that they've made about farming is they don't care to be farmers. ... What has suffered is the agrarian economy. That isn't the Jeffersonian situation where 90 percent or 95 percent of us were farmers. It's a very efficient system that we as the American people have chosen to adopt, in which 2 percent of us are farmers.

Do you lament the loss of the family farm?

Of course I lament the loss of the family farm. One of the greatest joys of raising my children was reading them the whole series of the Little House on the Prairie books, in which this agrarian ideal is typified and glorified. And it's a warm and wonderful thing. We all cried a lot at times in reading those things.

But even then, one of my children asked me: "Dad, why were they always moving? Why did they go from the prairie to Clear Lake?" ... The fact is they starved out where they were before, but always felt that certainly in the next place, this intrinsically important thing they were doing would be rewarded and they could stay there and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the way it's worked out in production agriculture.

You obviously are a man of the West. You identify with that. You're very proud of that. ... Yet the industry that you have contributed to has become more like working in a factory than working on a farm.

It's more like working in a factory at many levels. There still is that act of creation that occurs when a farmer plants the seed, when a calf is born, when a litter of pigs is born. And that act still is a transcending event. ...

I'd like to think that I've been realistic, though, in knowing that I have to survive economically. I have to do things that make sense economically. And what I've tried to do is balance my life to be as involved in that act of creation as I can be without going broke and losing the opportunity to continue to participate in it. ...

What has this place we sit in become? What has the Kansas City stockyards become today?

... Well, the Kansas City stockyards, in their day, were a dynamic dynamo, really an economic juggernaut for this area. There were 12,000 men working in the packing houses and 4,000 men working in the stockyards here, 470 firms in this livestock exchange building. You place that 50 years ago in the economy, and it was really dominant. ...

As change comes to all things, it came [to] the way the cattle are accumulated and slaughtered and the place in which it's done. ... So the stockyards are a wonderful memory, a romantic period in the past of Kansas City, but no longer an economic force. ...

And so what we have now in this wonderful old building is the largest livestock exchange building ever built in the United States. ... It probably would have been scheduled for demolition had we not bought it 10 years ago and redeveloped it. ...

So what does it say that we've gone from this building symbolizing the hub of the cattle industry and the economic viability of Kansas City to ... a variety of offices and artists' space? What does that say?

Well, it says that change is the ever-present factor, and the need to adapt to that change is absolutely mandatory for survival. I really wish that there were still pens out here and cowboys and horses and the ability to pen 60,000 cattle a day and receive five trainloads of cattle. I'd love that, if that were still a part of things. But it isn't. And realistically, I think what we've done here is simply adapt ourselves and this building to the fact that things aren't like they used to be.

A seminal event was our first land sale of 17 acres to Gateway Computers. What a wonderful illustration of how things change in what comes on. ...

Has this industry pushed us into a diet that is less nutritious?

Not necessarily. Certainly the possibility is there that it has. But fast food is driven by consumer preference. And consumer preference really does drive the products that are offered in the fast food industry. ...

We are becoming a nation of fat people. And that's not a good thing. ... I'm not sure how much of it is dietary, though, and how much of it is sedentary lifestyles that people have chosen. I'm dismayed at the amount of time that children spend looking at television, playing computer games, doing sedentary activities. I think that's a tremendous contributor to the obesity that's become an epidemic in the United States.

The fast food industry -- the food industry in general -- certainly is one of the villains in that. But consumer preference is really what's driven that. The fastest-growing item for a number of years in the grocery business has been not low-fat ice cream, but highest-fat ice cream. People have demanded it. Certainly the food industry is going to provide what people demand to eat. ...

But you'd put the blame, if you will, on the consumer and not on the business -- the companies -- for creating that?

I really do put it on the consumer. And there are a couple of beautiful examples in the beef business. One, McDonald's a few years ago listened to consumers' stated preferences and said, "Let's produce a really lean hamburger." And everybody bought it once and nobody bought it the second time. And it was a disaster as a product, because although people said it was what they wanted, it wasn't what they wanted.

Ten or 15 years ago the beef industry responded to the consumer surveys in saying what they wanted was more lean beef. And in fact, consumption of beef immediately began to decline, and decline for more than 20 years, until the industry realized, "Hey, wait a minute, maybe they said they wanted beef to be really lean. But what they really wanted was a tasteful, tender, juicy product." And that really was kind of an incredible example of the differences between consumers' stated preferences and their actual buying habits. ...

[Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation] documents the growth of fast food and the changes in the industry. And at some level it has a thesis that we've created a monster, that it is this hugely powerful industry that is dictating our tastes and has created a somewhat unsustainable industry, and a very unhealthful diet. Do you see it that way?

There's a theory that the fast-food industry has dictated something to the consumer about what they're going to consume. I think that's absolutely false. The consumer has dictated to the food industry, and specifically the fast food industry, what they want. And that's what the industry produces. ...

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Solitary NationApril 22nd