Meat Consumption in the 21st Century

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about immigrant life in the United States, showed Americans a harsh and unpleasant side of the meat industry. Unsanitary and unethical working conditions were exposed, leading to reform in the meat industry and a reevaluation of the service. During the early 20th century, immigrants were often employed in slaughterhouses and factories as a way of taking advantage of cheap labor opportunities. These companies swindled immigrants who were desperate for work and attempted to save every penny they could by taking shortcuts with sanitation and meat regulation. However, these slaughterhouses knew what we know today: the meat industry holds high power over Americans.

According to the North American Meat Institute, Americans produced (and consumed) 93 billion pounds of poultry and meat in 2013. This fact sheet also mentions that American dietary guidelines have a daily recommendation of 5.7 ounces of meat “as part of a healthy, balanced diet” (

In Sinclair’s novel, the meat industry serves as a central hub for American economy and growth. The owners of meat markets are able to exploit immigrants for cheap labor and the American population can purchase cheap meat products as part of their “healthy” daily diets. What I am especially  curious about is how and when it was decided that meat be a core part of our daily diet.

In recent years, health care providers have been recommending plant-based diets in an effort to avoid heart diseases and high cholesterol. Plant-based diets are no longer being passed off as inadequate and have been recognized to provide the same — if not more — amount of nutrients as a carnivorous diet.

With the recent press expressing the benefits of plant-based diets, why are Americans still eating so much meat ? I think this is due to the fact that we have been encouraged to believe in the power of meat and animal-based proteins. By including meat as an essential for a healthy American diet — especially in the 70s/80s — meat production has progressed to an astonishing state of mass production and shoddy business practices. The developments in factory farming and modified animal hormones have not only resulted in severely unethical animal treatment, but have also led to incredible amounts of environmental waste.

NPR’s article regarding meat consumption takes a look at meat consumption in America and what the cost really is for our consumption practices. 15 years after Sinclair’s novel was published, cattle inventory was listed at 12.5 million; in the 70s, it was somewhere around 45 million and today, it’s around 29 million. As NPR points out, the decrease in cattle isn’t representative of the levels of cattle consumption. In fact, those levels have spiked up since the 70s, even though there were substantially more cattle.

On the plus side, Americans have become more efficient with the amount of waste of the animal. However, there is still the obvious issue of the resulting waste that comes with a meat-based diet. Meat production is not only unethical in some ways, but is also one of the main causes of environmental destruction in the world.

The amount of land, water, emissions, and energy that goes into producing beef is huge and with the continued myth that our diets must include some percentage of daily meat intake only allows the meat industry to maintain its hold on the American population.