Posts Tagged ‘Meat’

Guest Blog by Marta Zaraska[1]

If there is one thing that is the most responsible for keeping us hooked on meat, it’s our culture. Not our genes, not our taste buds, not even the powerful meat industry with its annual sales in US higher than the GDP of Hungary or Ukraine — although, admittedly, all these factors are important, too.

DSC_0023_2There are plenty of beliefs that, taken together, perpetuate the meat-eating culture. Take the belief that “we are what we eat.” The Hua tribe of Papua, New Guinea, think that children will grow fast if they eat fast-growing plants, while the men of the Dyak tribe of Northwest Borneo avoid venison for fear that eating it would make them timid like deer. In ancient Egypt, kings would once a year slaughter the bull-god Apis and eat its flesh to get the animal’s fierceness. In Benin, West Africa, practitioners of voodoo to this day drink the blood of sacrificial animals to get their strength. And studies show people in the West may hold similar believes, too, albeit subconsciously. In a classic 1989 experiment conducted among 310 undergraduate students at University of Pennsylvania, fictional tribes-people who eat boars were rated as having more hair and being faster runners than those who eat turtles.

No wonder then that we think that eating bloody meat will make us stronger, while eating leafy green vegetables could turn us kind of floppy and weak. You can see the echoes of such convictions in everyday language. We “beef up” our muscles in the gym, but go “couch potato” when we feel lazy. To “become a vegetable” is to become disabled. To be a “beefcake” is to be attractive and strong.

800px-Chimpanzee-HeadMeat has symbolized wealth and masculinity for thousands of years. It all goes back to 2.5 million years ago, when our ancestors started eating meat on the savannas of Africa. Meat is a particular food. It often comes in a big package (think elephant-sized, or even zebra-sized) and spoils fast. That makes it the perfect food for sharing. But when you have something so calorie-dense and nutrient-dense as meat – and hence, craved – to divide among others, some important questions arise: Who will get the largest piece? Who will get nothing at all? Thus politics begin. Our cousins, the chimps, use meat to buy political privileges, too. Not only do they give meat to select apes to form alliances, the alpha-males are also more likely to share meat more generously at the start of their reign than later on.

Vegan_Chocolate_Chip_CookieWhat helped cement the connection between meat, power and wealth later on in human history, was the so-called scarcity principle. Basically if something is rare and expensive we tend to desire it more. That’s part of the allure of things like Aston Martin cars or Patek Philippe watches. In one experiment researchers asked 200 women to rate the value of chocolate chip cookies placed in two jars: one jar contained ten of the cookies, while another just two of them. Even though the cookies didn’t differ whatsoever, those from the almost empty jar were rated higher than the ones from the full jar.

Meat has been a rare and expensive good for most of human history. The diet of a farm worker in 18th century England would consist mostly of root vegetables, bread, cheese, butter, sugar, tea, and a little milk. Meat seldom made it onto the plates of the poor. Meanwhile, the European aristocracy gorged themselves on as much as two to three pounds of meat and fish per person per day, devouring everything from pigs and chicken to peacocks, storks, otters and porpoises. And that abundance of meat was what the lower classes aspired to.

Cashews_1314What’s more, treating meat as a reward, a special food eaten during celebrations, only boosts its power as something to crave. In one experiment researchers told children that they could only have certain snack foods if they behaved well – and right away they started craving these snacks more than did kids in a control condition, who were just simply offered the food. And there are plenty of other experiments with similar conclusions. Watching other people smile as they eat certain foods makes us enjoy these foods more, too. Leann Birch, psychologist at the University of Georgia, has shown in her research that if you give children snacks they don’t necessarily like much, such as cashews, but you do it while being super friendly, the kids will start truly enjoying the taste of cashews (here’s a tip to parents – if you want your kids to love broccoli, show pleasure on your face when you eat it yourself, even if you have to fake it). For centuries meat has been eaten on occasions when people are particularly friendly to each other: think Thanksgiving, Sunday dinner roasts. Even the word Carnevale in latin literally means “farewell meat” – good-bye before the fasting of Lent. No wonder, then, that for so many of us meat equals pleasure.

1024px-Outback_Steakhouse_Hummer_H1_side (1)The mighty meat industry knows well how to play on symbolism of meat to sell us more of it. Look at the advertisements they put on TV. In an ad for Hummer H3, a vegetarian guy has to buy himself that gas-guzzler of a car to prove he is still powerful and wealthy, even though he doesn’t eat meat. In Burger King’s ‘’Manthem’’ ad, a group of guys sing that they need to “eat like men” (meat, obviously), while DelTaco’s ad suggests that beef will feed the beast inside you — the primitive, violent masculinity. Other examples abound.

With such potent symbolism behind it, no wonder we stay hooked on meat. We humans like power and wealth, and that’s precisely what meat stands for. But, hopefully, if we are aware of the symbols and cultural stereotypes the meat eating plays on – and that the meat industry uses to lure us — we can learn to better control our food cravings.

[1] Marta Zaraska is a science journalist published in Scientific American, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other publications. She is author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat (Basic Books, February 2016).41dE4NGvM4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_


Uncle Sam Says: Eat More Meat!

Posted: December 9, 2014 in Images, Posts
Tags: , , , , , ,

640px-Uncle_Sam_(pointing_finger)In his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a future where people exist solely to support the economy and are conditioned from birth to buy things. Government bureaucrats manipulate the sheep-like citizens with drugs and slogans to make them consume as much as possible. In Huxley’s vision, 26th-century consumers learn that “ending is better than mending” and “the more stitches, the less riches” – that is, buying new things is better than fixing old ones. But as I discuss in my book Meatonomics, this eerie futuristic fantasy – with government using marketing slogans and other undue influence to drive consumption – has arrived centuries early for US consumers. In the Brave New World of the 21st century – where big box stores and mega markets dominate the landscape – the US government uses innocuous-sounding “checkoff” programs to encourage people to buy more animal foods.

In fact, checkoffs make us consume much more meat, eggs and dairy than we would otherwise. Yet most Americans have never heard of these government programs, and for that reason it’s important to consider the dramatic impact checkoffs have on our consumption patterns and our lives. In this article, I explore seven surprising facts behind our government’s marketing of animal foods via these little-known programs.

  1. Checkoffs Use Super-Catchy Slogans

beefiwfdMeat and dairy ads have bombarded American consumers relentlessly for decades.  You’ve seen the milk mustaches and the snappy slogans:

Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.
Pork. The Other White Meat.
Milk. It Does a Body Good.

They’re as American as apple pie and as commonplace as ads for Ford or Chevy. Like an ink stamp, these ads imprint themselves on our subconscious and become part of our belief system. What’s for dinner? Without even knowing why, many think, Beef.

  1. A Checkoff is a Tax

Checkoffs used to be voluntary, and producers opted in by checking a box. Nowadays, the programs are mandatory – just like any other tax. The way they work is simple: Congress slaps a small assessment on certain items, and the collected funds are used to pay for research and marketing programs that boost the goods’ sales. So when animal food producers collect $1 per head of cattle, $0.40 per $100 of pork, or $0.15 per 100 pounds of dairy, the funds go to national, state and regional marketing groups. There aren’t many Boston Tea Party–like protests when it comes to making the payments – because most consumers don’t know about checkoffs and most producers think their trade groups put the money to good use.

  1. It’s Consumers, Not Producers, Who Pay the Tax

Nominally speaking, it’s producers who pay checkoff taxes – a fact they proclaim loudly and regularly. But that’s not who really pays for checkoffs.  Economists point to a tax’s “incidence” to describe who ultimately bears the burden of paying it. In the case of checkoffs, the cost is generally passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. In other words, we pay extra to get both the product and the snappy marketing message.

  1. They’re Incredibly Effective

dreamstime_xl_17990934Across the board, checkoffs work remarkably well to make Americans buy more meat and dairy than we would otherwise. According to the US Department of Agriculture, for each dollar of checkoff funds spent promoting animal foods, “the return on investment can range as high as $18.” The pork checkoff program drives $14 in sales per dollar spent. The lamb checkoff lacks a memorable motto but still provides an unusually huge boost, driving additional sales of $38 for each dollar spent on promotion. But the biggest winner might be dairy, which boasted that over a year and a half, checkoff efforts contributed to more than 7 billion additional pounds of milk sold. That’s an extra forty-seven servings of dairy per person in the United States – above and beyond the hundreds of servings people would have consumed anyway during the period. Clearly, milk is up to more than just doing a body good.

  1. They Spend a Fortune

All told, these programs provide funding of $557 million yearly for animal food producers to promote their goods. This massive, government-mandated marketing budget gives the animal food industry something few other sectors have: a huge marketing war chest to boost sales of all goods from all producers in the program. In almost every other industry, individual corporations must fork out their own funds to increase sales rather than rely on government programs to prop up their numbers. With checkoff programs, on the other hand, Americans buy more of nearly every conceivable animal food than they would otherwise. Like an insatiable diner, the animal food industry relishes the higher sales that result. Dairy promoters brag that since their checkoff program started in 1983, annual per capita consumption of milk “has climbed 12 percent to 620 pounds.”

  1. They Speak the Message of the Federal Government

800px-Oblique_facade_1,_US_Supreme_CourtSome producers say checkoffs have been unfairly linked to government and are actually just the tools of good old-fashioned capitalism. They argue these arrangements involve only private firms who pool advertising monies without government participation, and their mission and methods are no different from those of any private advertiser. However, the US Supreme Court decisively rejected this position in a 2005 case involving the beef checkoff. In Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, the Supreme Court held the beef checkoff’s message was actually government speech (a form of speech the government can make others support). This holding from the highest court in the land leaves little doubt that checkoff programs, and the messages they generate, are the product of the federal government. So when one of these organizations speaks – regardless of the product it’s hawking – it may say it’s the National Pork Board, but the background sounds are the imposing bass tones of the US government.

  1. They Drive Unhealthy Levels of Consumption

400px-Physical_Exam_-_StethoscopePerhaps the most disturbing feature of checkoffs is that most Americans already consume more animal foods than the USDA recommends. Nonetheless, like a desperate salesperson trying to meet an unrealistic quota, the agency keeps using checkoffs to goad people to buy even more. One result is these programs impose billions of dollars in hidden costs on American consumers and taxpayers. Another is that they further sicken an already-ill nation. Ultimately, perhaps the question we should ask ourselves about checkoff programs is: Got Milked?

bee in the sand

There’s a beautiful beach called “Crystal Cove” near my home, so close that my partner Tania and I, who consider it our personal sanctuary, walk on the shore several times a week.  (This stretch of coastline is one of the best things about Orange County, California, a place so conservative and corporate-friendly that voters here rejected a GMO labeling initiative by a two-to-one margin.)  In the past year, however, we’ve seen something strange on the beach along with the starfish, anemones and shorebirds: dying bees.  Sometimes there are none.  Other times they’re present by the dozens, wriggling in circles in the wet sand at the water’s edge like drunken, disoriented little aviators.  Eventually, they get tired and simply expire.  You can pick them up, barely alive, and move them inland to a safe place, but it makes no difference.  They’re fatally lost, they can’t find their hive, and they’ll be dead in a few hours.

749px-Anthidium_February_2008-1“Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) refers to the mysterious disappearance of millions of US honeybees over the past half-century – and at an alarmingly accelerated rate since 2006.  I don’t know for certain whether dying bees at the shore are casualties of CCD, and the academics I asked didn’t know either.  But it sure seems likely, especially since CCD is such a generalized concept that almost anything might fit the category.  Which brings me to the main point of this post: the evidence shows that CCD is yet another unfortunate, costly result of Americans’ extraordinarily high consumption of meat and dairy.

mcdonalds-Big-MacIn my book MeatonomicsI show that our nation’s obsession with animal foods – leading us to consume more meat per capita than any other country on the planet – costs us more than $400 billion yearly in hidden, or externalized, costs.  The expenses related to these bee die-offs are also significant, which is why the agriculture industry and the US Department of Agriculture take CCD seriously and are devoting resources to addressing it.  One-third of the food we eat depends on honeybee pollination – giving those pollination services an estimated value of $215 billion worldwide.[1]  In 2008, there were just 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States, down from 5.9 million in 1945.[2]  These massive colony losses have already raised honey costs and beehive rental costs, hurt some beekeepers’ incomes, put others out of business, and threatened to disrupt the production of crops worth $15 billion.[3]

Let’s consider how bees are dying, then look at why meat and dairy are to blame.  One leading explanation for CCD is that the prevalent use of pesticides on crops is killing the little pollinators.[4]  When exposed to toxins, bees become disoriented and die within twenty-four hours.  The bee deaths at the beach, of course, fit this pattern like a honeycomb fits a hive.

800px-Corn_field_ohioAnother theory for the bees’ disappearance is that with vast amounts of US cropland now dedicated to monocrops like corn and soybeans, foraging bees cannot find sufficient nutritional or seasonal variety to meet their needs.[5]  Moreover, bees get important immune-boosting benefits from consuming a variety of pollen types, and when they consume only one type, these benefits are diminished.[6]

A final hypothesis says that bees are dying because the pollen of GMO plants is altering the DNA of bees or of bacteria that live in bees’ guts.  One researcher who studied this phenomenon found that genetic material transferred to bees from GMO corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow parasites to gain entry.”[7]

764px-Honey_bee_on_a_dandelion,_Sandy,_Bedfordshire_(7002893894)Of course, it could even be a combination of all three of these factors.  After all, bees evolved to consume healthy pollen from a variety of natural plants, not toxic pollen from pesticide-soaked, genetically modified, monocrops.  So the triple-whammy theory makes sense too.

It seems indisputable that CCD is a consequence of industrial agriculture, but what does this have to do with meat and dairy?  That’s easy: most of the crops we grow in this country are fed to livestock.[8]  Thus, the top three US crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Farm animals eat 70 percent of the soybeans, 80 percent of the corn, and virtually all of the hay.[9]  Moreover, 94% of US soy is GMO, as is 88% of US corn.[10]

Thus, the picture that emerges is this: most US cropland is dedicated to GMO monocrops being raised to feed livestock.  And the research shows that it is precisely these crops that are killing bees.  So it is fair to conclude that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the massive bee declines associated with CCD.

800px-Fresh_cut_fruits_and_vegetablesWhat can we do about it?  For starters, we can consume less meat and dairy and eat more organic fruits and vegetables.  This switch alone would go a long way toward helping restore the natural and variegated sources of healthy pollen that bees need.  I propose some other solutions to this and other problems of animal agriculture in my book – so for more details, check out Meatonomics.


[1] Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al., “A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008,” PLoS ONE 3, no. 12 (2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Raine, “Many Causes Blamed for Honeybee Die-off: Colony Collapse Disorder Could Cost $15 Billion,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 1, 2007).

[4] Pettis J, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, Dively G. Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften. 2012;99:153–158.

[5] M. Spivak, E. Mader, M. Vaughan, N. H. Euliss Jr., 2011.- The plight of the bees.- Environmental Science and Technology, 45: 34-38.

[6] Alaux C; Ducloz F; Crauser D; Le Conte Y. 2010. Diet effects on honeybee immunocompetence. Biology Letters.

[7] Gunther Latsch, “Collapsing Colonies: Are GM Crops Killing Bees?,” Spiegel Online (March 22, 2007).

[8] Edgar G. Hertwich et al., “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials” (report, Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, United Nations Environment Program, 2010), 80.

[9] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Major Crops Grown in the United States”; Lester Brown, “Soybeans Threaten Amazon Rainforest,” Grist (2010).

[10] Ryan Beville, “How Pervasive are GMOs in Animal Feed?,” GMO Inside Blog (July 16, 2013).


Are you being manipulated into buying things you don’t want or need? In my book Meatonomics, I show that animal food producers control our everyday food-buying choices with misleading messaging, artificially low prices, and heavy control over legislation and regulation. This producer behavior is simply shocking. The result is that in many respects, we have lost the ability to decide for ourselves what – and how much – to eat. 

By learning just 10 quick facts about this industry and its highly coordinated messaging and manipulation, you can empower yourself to make better-informed choices immediately. You’ll see benefits to your health, your waistline, your ecological footprint, and more.

1. In a creepy, Big-Brotherish tactic straight out of a sci-fi movie, the federal government uses catchy slogans to get people to buy more meat and dairy.

beef_1Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. 
Milk. It does a body good. 

Each year, USDA-managed programs spend $550 million to bombard Americans with slogans like these urging us to buy more animal foods. Although people in every age group already eat more animal protein than recommended, and far more than our forebears did, these promotional programs are shockingly effective at making us buy even more. Each marketing buck spent boosts sales by an average of $8, for an annual total of an extra $4.6 billion in government-backed sales of meat, dairy, and eggs.

2. Americans eat more meat per person than any other people on earth, and we’re paying the price in doctor bills.

At 200 pounds of meat per person per year, our high meat consumption is hurting our national health. Hundreds of clinical studies in the past several decades show that consumption of meat and dairy, especially at the high levels seen in this country, can cause cancerdiabetesheart disease, and a host of other diseases. Thus, Americans have twice the obesity rate, twice the diabetes rate, and nearly three times the cancer rate as the rest of the world. Eating loads of meat isn’t the only reason people develop these diseases, but it’s a major factor.

3. Animal food production is the world’s leading cause of climate change.

That’s right. Forget carbon-belching buses or power plants. Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases. Yet amazingly, if Americans could just cut back on animal foods by half, the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be like garaging all U.S. motor vehicles and vessels for as long as we keep our consumption down.

4. There’s no sustainable way to raise animal foods to meet the world’s growing demand.

Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. We’re watching a real-time, head-on collision between the world’s huge demand for animal foods and the reality of scarce resources. It takes dozens of times more water and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. Unfortunately, even “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, or on pastures can’t overcome the basic math: the resources just don’t exist to keep feeding the world animal foods at the level it wants.

5. A $5 Big Mac would cost $13 if the retail price included hidden expenses that meat producers offload onto society.

mcdonalds-Big-MacAnimal food producers impose $414 billion in hidden costs on American society yearly. These are the bills for healthcare, subsidies, environmental damage, and other items related to producing and consuming meat and dairy. That means that each time McDonald’s sells a Big Mac, the rest of us pay $8 in hidden costs.

6. American governments spend $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy, but only 0.04% of that ($17 million) to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines urge us to eat more fruits and vegetables and less cholesterol-rich food (that is, meat and dairy). Yet like a misguided parent giving a kid cotton candy for dinner, state and federal governments get it backwards by giving buckets of cash to animal agriculture while providing almost no help to those raising fruits and vegetables.

7. Big businesses love farm subsidies. Small farmers and rural Americans hate them.

In the last 15 years, two-thirds of American farmers didn’t receive a single penny from direct subsidies worth over $100 billion – the funds mainly went to big corporations. The subsidy money spurs the growth of factory farms, which are surprisingly bad for local economies (they employ fewer workers per animal than regular farms, and they buy most of their supplies outside the local area). That’s why when pollsters asked Iowans how they feel about farm subsidies, a large majority preferred ending the handouts.

8. Factory fishing ships are exploiting the world’s oceans so aggressively that scientists fear the extinction of all commercially fished species within several decades.

Like an armada bent on victory at any cost, the 23,000 factory ships that patrol the world’s oceans have decimated one-third of the planet’s commercially fished species. They also indiscriminately kill and discard 200 million pounds of non-target species, or bycatch, every day. Because of such colossal destruction and waste, the United Nations says fishing operations are “a net economic loss to society.”

9. Fish farming isn’t the answer.

fishfarm1Sometimes hailed as the future of sustainable food production, fish farming is actually just another form of factory farming. Farmed fish live in the same stressful, tight conditions as land animals, and concentrated waste and chemicals from aquaculture damage local ecosystems. Escapes lead to further problems, as in the North Atlantic region where 20% of supposedly wild salmon are actually of farmed origin. When genes from wild and farmed fish mix, it degrades the wild population.

10. If they treated a dog or cat like that, they’d go to jail.

Industry-backed laws passed in the last 30 years make it legal to do almost anything to a farmed animal. Connecticut, for example, in 1996 legalized “maliciously and intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding, or killing an animal” – provided it’s done “while following generally accepted agricultural practices.” Since most states have similar exemptions, farmed animals have almost no protection from inhumane treatment.

What’s a person to do?

Hann_lambVote with your pocketbook. If you’re concerned about the creepy marketing, environmental damage, health risks, economic problems, or ethical issues that plague the meat industry, you can take action immediately. Make a choice to buy less meat, fish, eggs, and dairy – or better yet, give them up completely. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do.

For more information and additional solutions, get the book Meatonomics.

BM total intervals - wide - text 5

The average retail price of a Big Mac in the United States is $4.56, but that’s just a fraction of the actual cost. When we add in all the hidden, externalized expenses of meat production, the full burden on society is a hefty $12.00 per sandwich. The extra $7.44 above the retail price is borne by American taxpayers and consumers. In other words, rich or poor, omnivore or herbivore, you incur a share of the hidden costs of each and every Big Mac sold in this country.

Curious what you’re paying for? The externalized costs of each burger include:

  • $0.38 for cruelty.  A total of $20.7 billion in cruelty costs is imposed on Americans each year. (Extrapolated from a study in which auction participants bid to end cruel farming practices.)
  • $0.67 in environmental losses.  This is a small piece of the $37.2 billion in annual environmental costs related to U.S. animal food production each year. The figure includes the costs of soil erosion, climate change, damage from pesticides and fertilizers, devaluation of real property, and manure remediation.
  • $0.70 in subsidies.  Toss in a few coins from the $38.4 billion in government subsidies that American taxpayers pay to fund the meat and dairy industries each year.
  • $5.69 in health care costs. The biggest slice of the pie is a chunk of the $314 billion in health care costs incurred by Americans each year to treat those cases of cancer, diabetes heart disease, and food poisoning related to meat and dairy consumption.

With “billions and billions” sold, the social costs add up fast. The total externalized costs of U.S. meat and dairy production are over $414 billion each year. Under a financial burden of such staggering dimensions, the only ones “lovin’ it” are shareholders in the McDonald’s Corporation.

* * *

Source: David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013) (costs of fish production excluded).