Over a century ago, a journalist obtained employment in the meat-packing industry in Chicago intending to draw attention to the deplorable working conditions. When Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle was finally published, the public reacted not to the conditions endured by the workers, but to diseased cattle and the lack of sanitation in an industry that provided the meat they ate.
Today we see the same sort of activism surrounding the meat industry. The differences between the two eras are mostly a matter of technology. Sinclair used a pen and paper. Today, the tools are hidden video cameras and videos posted to the Internet where some of them go viral.
No less than in Upton Sinclair’s day, the battle today is an ideological one. He was a socialist hoping to end wage slavery; concern about tainted meat was the public’s interest. Today’s videographers’ issues range from the humane treatment of animals to making the eating of meat unpalatable to a large swath of the U.S. public. For those concerned about animal welfare, the target audience is typically consumers who will pressure large restaurant and grocery chains to set standards for the meat/egg/milk products they sell.
One hundred years ago, the result of the work of Sinclair and other muckrakers was the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Today, state legislators debate ways to make it illegal for workers to surreptitiously make videos in meat-production facilities.
The problem with legislation that aims to punish today’s muckrakers is that it makes the meat industry look like it has something to hide. And, that only makes matters worse for everyone, all of the way back to the cow-calf operator.
If consumers think the industry has something to hide, they will switch products. With today’s emphasis on a diet that includes a variety of whole grains, the only thing consumers have to do is add a complement of pulses and they can consume all of the essential amino acids needed for full protein utilization in humans — no meat or animal products needed.
As recently reported on the Drovers Cattle Network, Colorado State University and the Colorado Beef Council sponsored a “conference titled “Beef + Transparency = Trust.” In an article, “Trust through transparency — Part 3,” Drovers managing editor John Maday wrote, “Temple Grandin, known worldwide for her work in animal behaviour and handling, told the group that the livestock industry needs to show the public what they do. And if there is something we are unwilling to show, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
As economists, we agree. The availability of complete-as-possible information to all market participants is a key expectation for economic transactions in free-market economies. Information restrictions of all kinds are indefensible and totally foreign to the perfectly competitive models ascribed to by economists.
In this case one could argue that detailed information from producers, along with the reasons for practices, would provide a more balanced and real-world window into livestock production than an agenda-driven, highly edited video that goes viral on the Internet.