Readers of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or those who pay attention to food, may be aware of grim realities sometimes found in the meatpacking business. One of these realities is consolidation. By now the industry has become so centralized that four enormous companies control over 80% of all beef processing. The rancher is forced to accept squeaky-thin profits and little control over his product. Employees at the packing plants, some of whom are so-called illegal immigrants, are generally worked hard and paid poorly. If the animals could speak, doubtless they would change some things too.
How much the consumer benefits from this system is a matter of debate. As in all debates, it is important to understand what Wes Jackson has called the boundary of consideration. To Paul Harvey it was the rest of the story. What they meant is that with most things in life there are many factors to consider. When we have a narrow boundary of consideration we may reach a different conclusion than if our boundary is sufficiently large to be honest and realistic. In my opinion there is often an inverse relationship between the size of the operation and the boundary it recognizes and considers. In other words, the larger the industry the more narrowly it tends to view things.
Despite many regulations and much government funding, 50 million Americans became ill with food poisoning last year, mostly due to Salmonella. The CDC now says we have made virtually no progress in this area. Headlines such as "Government still seeking source of tainted turkey" (Idaho State Journal 8/3/11) will continue to appear, especially when each hamburger literally contains the meat from hundreds or even thousands of cows.
A nice contrast to the status quo is provided by the Lunt family in Grace. Several years ago Wes gave up high school teaching to cut meat. As with many small business ventures, this one required a financial investment and the family's help. He also needed a fair measure of faith and a long-term commitment to the community.
Unlike the industrial meatpackers, Wes welcomes customers to his facility where they can see the conditions for themselves. I'm pretty sure he has never proposed Iowa-like legislation making it illegal to photograph his work area. There is, after all, nothing to hide. When I visited a few years ago I was soon impressed by his well-mannered and helpful children. At that moment, watching the family interaction seemed reward enough for the trip over even if I didn't get any meat for the freezer.