An industry promoting its own scientific studies, denying existing and factual data, lobbying departments within the government, and funneling large sums of money into the pockets of congressmen and women–this sounds like Big Tobacco, right? Well, ever so quietly, another industry has learned from these harmful tactics and found tremendous success in doing so–Big Meat. Americans are consuming more meat than ever, nearly 60 pounds per person per year. However, a recent upswing in consumption comes in the face of a 10-year period beginning in 2005, in which beef consumption fell by over 15 percent. There are a number of reasons for this turnaround, but Big Meat’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering has certainly played an instrumental and long-standing role in altering the American diet. The author of Meatonomics, David Simon, sums it up well: “This triple whammy of messaging, legislation and price control … deprives consumers of the ability to make informed and independent decisions of what and how much to eat.” Despite these developments, the meat industry is facing two critical challenges that may have profound impacts on both short-term and long-term profitability of the industry: its expansion into international markets and battle with emerging lab-grown meat startups.
The meat lobby has sought out the academic community as a vehicle to legitimize its ideology. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published the headlines, “Eat more protein to sleep better” and “Need to Sleep Better? Go for a High-Protein Diet”, studies funded by none other than The Beef Checkoff and the National Pork Board, two major meat industry interest groups. A number of other studies funded by these groups, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA, the most powerful cattle lobby), and companies such as McDonalds have reached conclusions that there is little to no connection between red meat and cancer or high-blood pressure, despite a wealth of research indicating the opposite. The effects of this research is startling: The pork industry reports that 10% more pro-pork academic research is worth up to $60 million annually in sales. These numbers indicate that the health perceptions of a high-meat diet have a measurable effect on the dietary patterns of Americans.
Big Meat focuses immense energy on maintaining its cozy relationship with the U.S. government as well. When the industry faces outside stressors, it turns to these connections to help stabilize itself. Livestock lobbying skyrocketed above $3 million in 2006 and 2009, years in which Mad Cow Disease and swine flu epidemics, respectively, swept through parts of the US. Lobbying efforts by Big Meat do not stop here; they permeate deep into the infrastructure of the government, changing how we craft dietary guidelines.
Will the industry adopt its practices and keep its stranglehold on the global meat market or will it begin to watch its own weakening?
In 2015, the government released a new set of “Dietary Guidelines” for Americans, which are seen as the benchmark in directing the American dietary structure. According to OpenSecrets, the meat industry as a whole spent just shy of $7 million lobbying the federal government during the year preceding the reformation of these rules. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, lamented, “as expected, due to strong lobbying by the meat industry and the resulting strong pressure that Congress put into the developers of the 2015 DGAs, the recommendation to reduce consumption of red and processed meats was not included.” This is simply one instance in a long-pattern of influence of the industry. In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) transitioned from its “food wheel” to the “food pyramid” as a visual representation of dietary intake. The food pyramid made the importance of consuming fruits and vegetables in larger quantities than meat abundantly clear, much to the chagrin of the meat industry. After one year and nearly $1 million in U.S.D.A. lobbying, a new pyramid was released that included suggested serving sizes of food groups in addition to just the visual. These changes calmed fears in the industry that an unlabeled pyramid would suggest to consumers that they should avoid meat in significant quantities.
Similar lobbying efforts have yielded more nebulous results for President Trump’s trade showdown versus China. Emerging markets, and particularly China, represent a tremendous source of growth for the beef and pork industries. In 2017, the entire beef export market was $7 billion. In an environment without trade barriers, the U.S. Meat Export Federation forecasts upwards of $4 billion in exports to China annually over the next five years; however, under current tariff conditions, the Federation projects growth in exports of just $400 million in the same time. Kent Bacus, the Director of International Trade at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, has publicly called for a reduction in tariffs and a conclusion to the standoff with a Trans-Pacific Partnership-like solution, to no avail. China continues to be seen as a key to the industry’s growth, especially having finally survived its 14-year ban from the country on the heels of a breakout of Mad Cow Disease in 2003.
The meat industry is facing perhaps an even more potent challenger domestically: lab-grown, “clean meat,” alternatives. Their battle boils down to a single question: “What is meat?” The controversy revolves around whether lab-grown beef companies should be permitted to label their food “meat” and, if so, to what extent these companies must adhere to strict U.S.D.A. standards on inspection and production. The industry is split in how to address this threat. The NCBA sent a letter to the U.S.D.A., demanding that lab-grown startups be classified as meat, thus bogging its advancement down in regulatory compliance, whereas the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association sent a letter that clearly differentiated slaughtered meat from its lab-grown counterpart, suggesting alternative labeling for these products.
A third approach is to embrace the lab-grown movement, recognizing the eventual disruption this market will bring to the traditional industry. The lab-grown movement is already incredibly popular among environmentalists and animal rights activists and will provide greater flexibility to consumers. Earlier in 2018, Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the US, joined a list that includes Cargill, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson as backers of food-tech startup Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats is one of many venture capital-backed companies racing to reach production and integration into stores nationwide. Watching the regulatory fight play out will be fascinating, especially given differences within lobbying groups and between these groups and the industry they historically align with.
The U.S. meat industry is more at-risk than it has been in recent memory. It faces the very real threat of shrinking international markets vis a vis the changing mindset of the US on the merits of international trade. In a more existential question, the meat industry must grapple with how to adapt to the clean meat movement, which will eventually prove to be significant disruption to current practices. The traditional means of protection for the industry seem to be failing. Lobbying hasn’t prevented an increase in tariffs or a crackdown on food tech, at least yet. Will the industry adopt its practices and keep its stranglehold on the global meat market, or will it begin to watch its own weakening?
Photo: Dairy Cow