Research Highlights

Behind the Beef Machine

The origins of the modern U.S. beef industry go farther back than most people realize, says UC Berkeley historian Joshua Specht.


Joshua Specht is a vegetarian. Yet in the course of his research at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, he spends much of his days reading and writing about beef.

Specht, who is a historian by training and serves as the S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics and Political Economy, explains that it was a lifetime of thinking about the politics and impacts of industrial agriculture that both led him to disavow meat, and to focus his academic work on why people in the United States eat so much of it. In the history of beef production, Specht found he could explore why “so many of us talk about how the food system is problematic and at the same time inevitable,” he explains. “I wanted to know how it got that way.”

The answer, Specht found, goes far back into American history, long before the post-World War II industrial transformation that has been the focus of work by journalists such as Michael Pollan. In his unpublished manuscript, Red Meat Republic: The Rise of the Cattle-Beef Complex, 1865-1905, Specht argues that, while the agricultural changes of the 1950s were important, our current desire and ability to eat cheap beef began far earlier, during the nineteenth century. In this period, an expanding population of Americans in cities wanted to eat beef—a meat associated with class prestige, masculinity, and healthfulness, as well as a source of necessary protein. Urban entrepreneurs were eager to feed this demand, and doing so required raising more cattle and moving more meat from pasture to plate.

Whether rooted in cultural discourses justifying Indian land expropriation or technological arguments rationalizing market concentration, particular narratives enabled the historical processes integral to the rise of big meatpacking.

This process, Specht says, produced major changes in the American West, especially after the Civil War. The Great Plains, once the home of bison-hunting nomads, were increasingly settled by ranchers, a process of violent ecological change and war. Railroads made it possible to move cattle to centralized packing plants in urban areas. Businessmen became adept at distributing beef through networks of slaughterhouses and refrigerated rail cars, controlling how beef came to market. The U.S. government became involved in regulating everything from the disposition of Native American land to the quality of meat coming to market.

In essence, Specht says, the history of beef production in the United States is a history of the nation itself: of radical environmental change, expansion, technological innovation, as well as the rise of large business interests and their relationship with politics. Through this process, we ended up living a paradox: loving a romantic image of small-scale farming and adventurous cowboys, while eating industrially produced hamburgers.

As Specht describes in an abstract of his manuscript, the persistence of the U.S. beef industry in its current form has depended upon “a set of widely accepted narratives that made centralized meatpacking appear natural and inevitable. Whether rooted in cultural discourses justifying Indian land expropriation or technological arguments rationalizing market concentration, particular narratives enabled the historical processes integral to the rise of big meatpacking.”

Specht pieced this history together by spending months in archives across the United States. He discovered documents tracing the rise of meatpacking in Chicago and nearby cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He also discovered records left by Texas cattle ranchers, many of which are housed at West Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

Specht found that telling the ranchers’ story was much easier than examining what happened to cows once they were sold. “Meatpackers are still in business, and are worried about criticism,” he says. As a result, their records are company property, not open to the public. To get around this, Specht examined court cases, Congressional hearings, and letters from ranchers to major cattle buyers. When writing about cowboys, who did not leave many documents behind, Specht even used traditional campfire songs.


Through his investigation, Specht discovered that, for more than a century, people have been concerned about how their food is produced, from how the cattle are treated to the horrors of industrial labor, yet in many ways little about the system has changed. “We embed food in our personal worlds,” Specht says, “so we all like beef for our cultural reasons.” As a result, demand stays high, and American consumers have grown used to buying subsidized, inexpensive food. History has produced a set of expectations for eating meat, and a deeply flawed system for producing it.

Discerning the relationship between the environment, consumer demand, business interests, and government regulation was, for Specht, an interdisciplinary process from the start. His manuscript is infused with insights from law, economics, and anthropology; while in residence at Berkeley, Specht is frequently in dialogue with environmental scientists, and says that scholars focused on today’s policies have been interested to hear his perspectives. “The real key is learning to talk across disciplines,” he says. “People in different fields ask really unexpected questions.”

Specht notes that a major conclusion of his research is that our current methods of producing beef—which are environmentally costly in terms of land and water use, and produce inhumane feedlots and ill-paid, dangerous slaughterhouse jobs—were not actually inevitable. Indeed, they were the unexpected result of multiple historical choices and malleable cultural values. Looking at food production in this context “opens space for the story to recognize the limits of industrial agriculture—and of small-scale [food production] too,” he says. “It’s not just about evil meatpackers.”

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