Exploitation and predatory pricing drove the transformation of the US beef industry – and created the model for modern agribusiness.
The meatpacking mogul Jonathan Ogden Armour could not abide socialist agitators. It was 1906, and Upton Sinclair had just published The Jungle, an explosive novel revealing the grim underside of the American meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s book told the tale of an immigrant family’s toil in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, tracing the family’s physical, financial and emotional collapse. The Jungle was not Armour’s only concern. The year before, the journalist Charles Edward Russell’s book The Greatest Trust in the World had detailed the greed and exploitation of a packing industry that came to the American dining table “three times a day … and extorts its tribute”.
In response to these attacks, Armour, head of the enormous Chicago-based meatpacking firm Armour & Co, took to the Saturday Evening Post to defend himself and his industry. Where critics saw filth, corruption and exploitation, Armour saw cleanliness, fairness and efficiency. If it were not for “the professional agitators of the country”, he claimed, the nation would be free to enjoy an abundance of delicious and affordable meat.
Armour and his critics could agree on this much: they lived in a world unimaginable 50 years before. In 1860, most cattle lived, died and were consumed within a few hundred miles’ radius. By 1906, an animal could be born in Texas, slaughtered in Chicago and eaten in New York. Americans rich and poor could expect to eat beef for dinner. The key aspects of modern beef production – highly centralised, meatpacker-dominated and low-cost – were all pioneered during that period.
For Armour, cheap beef and a thriving centralised meatpacking industry were the consequence of emerging technologies such as the railroad and refrigeration coupled with the business acumen of a set of honest and hard-working men like his father, Philip Danforth Armour. According to critics, however, a capitalist cabal was exploiting technological change and government corruption to bankrupt traditional butchers, sell diseased meat and impoverish the worker.
Ultimately, both views were correct. The national market for fresh beef was the culmination of a technological revolution, but it was also the result of collusion and predatory pricing. The industrial slaughterhouse was a triumph of human ingenuity as well as a site of brutal labour exploitation. Industrial beef production, with all its troubling costs and undeniable benefits, reflected seemingly contradictory realities.
Beef production would also help drive far-reaching changes in US agriculture. Fresh-fruit distribution began with the rise of the meatpackers’ refrigerator cars, which they rented to fruit and vegetable growers. Production of wheat, perhaps the US’s greatest food crop, bore the meatpackers’ mark. In order to manage animal feed costs, Armour & Co and Swift & Co invested heavily in wheat futures and controlled some of the country’s largest grain elevators. In the early 20th century, an Armour & Co promotional map announced that “the greatness of the United States is founded on agriculture”, and depicted the agricultural products of each US state, many of which moved through Armour facilities.
Beef was a paradigmatic industry for the rise of modern industrial agriculture, or agribusiness. As much as a story of science or technology, modern agriculture is a compromise between the unpredictability of nature and the rationality of capital. This was a lurching, violent process that sawmeatpackers displace the risks of blizzards, drought, disease and overproduction on to cattle ranchers. Today’s agricultural system works similarly. In poultry, processors like Perdue and Tyson use an elaborate system of contracts and required equipment and feed purchases to maximise their own profits while displacing risk on to contract farmers. This is true with crop production as well. As with 19th-century meatpacking, relatively small actors conduct the actual growing and production, while companies like Monsanto and Cargill control agricultural inputs and market access.
The transformations that remade beef production between the end of the American civil war in 1865 and the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 stretched from the Great Plains to the kitchen table. Before the civil war, cattle raising was largely regional, and in most cases, the people who managed cattle out west were the same people who owned them. Then, in the 1870s and 80s, improved transport, bloody victories over the Plains Indians, and the American west’s integration into global capital markets sparked a ranching boom. Meanwhile, Chicago meatpackers pioneered centralised food processing. Using an innovative system of refrigerator cars and distribution centres, they began to distribute fresh beef nationwide. Millions of cattle were soon passing through Chicago’s slaughterhouses each year. By 1890, the Big Four meatpacking companies – Armour & Co, Swift & Co, Morris & Co and the GH Hammond Co – directly or indirectly controlled the majority of the nation’s beef and pork.
But in the 1880s, the big Chicago meatpackers faced determined opposition at every stage from slaughter to sale. Meatpackers fought with workers as they imposed a brutally exploitative labour regime. Meanwhile, attempts to transport freshly butchered beef faced opposition from railroads who found higher profits transporting live cattle east out of Chicago and to local slaughterhouses in eastern cities. Once pre-slaughtered and partially processed beef – known as “dressed beef” – reached the nation’s many cities and towns, the packers fought to displace traditional butchers and woo consumers sceptical of eating meat from an animal slaughtered a continent away.
The consequences of each of these struggles persist today. A small number of firms still control most of the country’s – and by now the world’s – beef. They draw from many comparatively small ranchers and cattle feeders, and depend on a low-paid, mostly invisible workforce. The fact that this set of relationships remains so stable, despite the public’s abstract sense that something is not quite right, is not the inevitable consequence of technological change but the direct result of the political struggles of the late 19th century.
In the slaughterhouse, someone was always willing to take your place. This could not have been far from the mind of 14-year-old Vincentz Rutkowski as he stooped, knife in hand, in a Swift & Co facility in summer 1892. For up to 10 hours each day, Vincentz trimmed tallow from cattle paunches. The job required strong workers who were low to the ground, making it ideal for boys like Rutkowski, who had the beginnings of the strength but not the size of grown men. For the first two weeks of his employment, Rutkowski shared his job with two other boys. As they became more skilled, one of the boys was fired. Another few weeks later, the other was also removed, and Rutkowski was expected to do the work of three people.