By: Janet Riley
After reading this Sunday’s Washington Post, I’m expecting to open next Sunday’s edition and see warnings that baseball and apple pie are somehow un-American. Why? Because this week’s Sunday outlook section contained a full frontal assault on, of all things, the hamburger, declaring it to be unpatriotic.
The writer was the Brooklyn –based Tracie McMillan, whose experience in agriculture seems to stem from her days making caramel apples at a Michigan orchard. She objects to burgers principally because she says that 85 percent of beef cattle are slaughtered by one of just four companies In actuality, hamburger comes largely from cows (as opposed to fed cattle), where four firms slaughter about half of cows every year.
While the “top four” stat is one that activists love to highlight in regard to the beef industry, this statistic mirrors the structures of many other industries. Four firms make 79 percent of aircraft, 75 percent of men’s slacks, 63 percent of soaps and detergents and 83 percent of greeting cards, for example.
Why have many consumer-focused industries restructured? In part, because consumers have come to prize consistency. Many consumers want everything from their pork tenderloins to their lattes to look and taste the same from purchase to purchase. That’s why chain restaurants that provide consistent and familiar eating experiences have succeeded so well in recent decades. The companies that supply them are called upon to provide a consistent product time and again, whether it’s a pork chop of a certain size, weight and quality or an apple of a certain size and crispness. In many cases, customers like these have come to choose to deal with fewer, larger suppliers.
I also must ask Ms. McMillan – at what point does a small company that succeeds and grows become a “big bad company?” Most every brand of meat started as a small, family owned butcher shop, but over time, and as a result of hard work and dedication, these companies grew, not because they were “bad” but because they were good.
The larger question, however, is this: is the industry’s structure bad for consumers? Let’s examine the facts. Time and again, the structure of the meat industry has been reviewed and declared to be competitive. As a nation, we spend less of our disposable income on food, and on meat specifically, than any other nation in the world. That number has been falling for two decades. Yes, recent events like drought and high feed prices have driven prices, up, but the overall price trend is down. The data contradict her claims that our nation “feeds the wealthy well and the poor poorly.”
And as we produce affordable food, we also set the standard in producing safe food. Bacteria on beef has declined as have foodborne illnesses associated with beef. And while McMillan claims that animal welfare suffers in large operations, leading animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin has been adamant that size is irrelevant to welfare. What matters is how facilities, large and small, are managed. In fact, her audit data, collected over time since 1996, shows dramatic improvements in animal welfare in beef packing plants.
It’s unfortunate that McMillan chooses to criticize from an urban perch. A closer inspection would reveal a much different picture. While her piece ran under the opinion banner, The Washington Post’s imprimatur gave her column credibility that it did not deserve. Eating hamburgers is a great American tradition and one that not only fuels our bodies, but our communities, and our local and national economies.