What Ice Can Teach Us About Alternative Meat

I haven’t always been a fan of the idea that history can provide “lessons” for the future. Analogy, as my high school history teacher often thundered, “is not analysis.” But every so often, I am struck by both the aesthetic connections and analogous similarity of historical moments and contemporary problems and debates. A recent re-reading of William Cronon’s legendary Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West gave me that elusive feeling of déjà vu, but what I was seeing was historical and what I had already seen was contemporary.All material not otherwise hyperlinked comes from pages 230-259, in William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).

As meatpacking companies in Chicago began utilizing refrigerated railcars to transport already slaughtered and butchered meat to eastern cities, local processors and butchers balked. Formerly, local meat purveyors purchased live cattle from the West and made a profit from their own processing. Similarly, consumers in places like New York and Philadelphia, uneasy about the idea of an animal carcass traveling all the way from Chicago, deemed “dressed beef,” as it was called, an unnatural and unsafe commodity.

If you pay attention to alternative proteins — both plant-based and cultivated meat — this story may seem familiar. Like the late 19th-century consumer reticence and butcher push-back on dressed beef, contemporary criticism of alternative meat from foodies, staunch meat-eaters, and wary industry groups focus on a conception of alternatives as “unnatural” and “highly processed.” It may be no more than an analogy, but there are some prescient lessons about prices and technology adoption for alternative meat proponents and companies.

In the late nineteenth century, Cronon explains, meatpackers in Chicago were trying desperately for year-round productivity. Chicago’s cold winters meant that slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants could simply harness the weather to keep their facilities cool and avoid product spoilage prior to preservation and canning. Summer heat made this work impossible. Artificial refrigeration and air conditioning were far from a reality, so the meatpackers turned to their natural predecessor — ice.

In the last few decades of the century, ice facilities popped up all over the northern Midwest, from western Illinois to Wisconsin, and further afield wherever there was a big enough pond to make ice storage economical. Much of this ice went directly to Chicago meatpackers, who used it, at first, to cool their facilities in the hot summer months, effectively “storing the winter” and extending their operations to the full calendar.

But, still, temperature limited their business. Storing the winter in their production facilities allowed for pork processing and canning year-round, but most beef cattle continued east by train, where consumers preferred non-preserved products purchased from local butcher shops throughout the country. Unhappy with their non-complete control of the meat market, meatpackers sought to take the butchered goods market as well. They did so by extrapolating their facility-cooling techniques to railcars.

As beef became a regular part of the American diet in the late 19th century, consumers sought out affordable cuts that could satiate the cultural hunger for beef. With time, any fear of spoilage from refrigerated beef dissipated and only a fondness of the value remained.

Cronon gives Gustavus Swift, one of the leaders of the infamous Big Four meatpackers, credit for driving the innovation. Swift had arrived in Chicago to purchase cattle wholesale at lower cost for his regional processing facilities in New England. But, shipping live animals by rail came with costs — imposed by railroads and cattle sickness alike — that made Swift seek out a better path.

Swift and Company decided instead of purchasing live cattle and spending an exorbitant amount on transportation, they could butcher cattle in Chicago, pack the meat tightly into ice-chilled railcars, and ship directly to company butcher shops across the country. Recognizing the efficiency gains, the other major meatpackers — Hammond, Nelson Morris, and Philip Armour — quickly joined in.

The Chicago packers quickly made capital investments: ice facilities at points along the rail lines that could resupply their refrigerated cars and avoid spoilage, and local facilities to sell their dressed beef directly to consumers. Savings from refrigeration made this possible. Removing the meat from the cattle prior to shipment eastward did more than just prevent weight loss and disease, it also allowed the packers to ship more beef per car, as all the extraneous parts of the cow had already been removed.

But still, consumers — or local butchers, for that matter — were skeptical of the promise of refrigerated meat. The fear of purchasing rancid or spoiled meat had been the central reason for local butcher shops, while the shocking novelty of consuming meat that had been butchered and shipped multiple days prior did not reassure consumers.

Today, technological innovation has brought us to a similar moment. Novel plant-based meat, like those produced by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have established themselves as a real alternative to conventional meat, entering fast food and grocery store markets to some early success. Similarly, cultivated meat — actual meat grown from cells in laboratory or industrial settings — has become a reality for Singaporean high-end restaurant-goers, and is poised to enter the U.S. market in the near future.

While these recent changes are fairly different from those wrought by refrigerated cars — plant-based alternatives are not the same thing as what they are replacing — they have received a similar response, at least from certain food writers, meat-eaters, and industry spokespeople. But instead of fears of spoiled and rotten products, the contemporary critics of alternative meats focus on their level of processing.

Luckily for alternative meat producers — and the environment, public health, and the welfare of billions of animals — fears of processing are not as central to how Americans conceive of health today as fears of rotten flesh were in the late 19th century. My colleague Alex Trembath, explained back in 2019, that fears about processing, ingredient lists, and the “fakeness” of meat alternatives are little more than elite, often coastal, preferences about food masquerading as concerns for health. Critics like Mark Bittman and John Mackay, the CEO of Whole Foods, alike have called out alternative proteins as being overly processed and thus unhealthy.

But, while today we’re mired in some of the initial, pitched battles between anti-processing critics and alternative meats, it is helpful to understand how the meatpackers of the late 19th century overcame customer reticence and industry pushback.

Price, according to Cronon, was key to winning over skeptical and reticent consumers to dressed and refrigerated beef. Savings from transportation allowed the packers to sell dressed beef at a much lower price than butchers could sell their freshly slaughtered meat. As beef became a regular part of the American diet in the late 19th century, consumers sought out affordable cuts that could satiate the cultural hunger for beef. With time, any fear of spoilage from refrigerated beef dissipated and only a fondness of the value remained.

Obviously, local butchers were no fans of this new competition undercutting their bottom line. To ease the transition, the big Chicago packers often sought to form deals with local purveyors to provide the infrastructure and shop for their refrigerated supply. Those butchers who connected their fortunes to dressed beef remained in business while many local processing houses and sellers were eventually forced to succumb to the meatpackers' cheap and attractive products. For those butchers who did not form early alliances, the meatpackers were often ruthless competitors. They undercut local prices by selling below production costs for higher quality cuts — sometimes literally from the refrigerated train car the meat arrived on — and making up for those losses either through other products or in other, already won, markets.

Additionally, with dressed beef came a combination of marketing and increased product diversity. Previously, butchers would take orders from customers and, at that moment, butcher their cut from carcasses hanging in the back of the shop. Because dressed beef could be prepared ahead of time and kept sanitary, shops could create displays for their customers and advertise specific kinds of cuts depending on location, or time of year. This, according to Cronon, allowed the meatpackers to sell previously unpopular cuts like chuck and round steak and make a greater profit from each slaughtered animal.

Still, the success of dressed beef was not simply won when customers overcame their suspicions. Railroads saw the more efficient dressed beef as a threat to their bottom line. Because cattle were bulkier and required more cars, the railroads could charge more for their transportation than they could for the fairly streamlined and efficiently stored dressed beef. After hard-fought negotiations and a brief period where a Canadian railroad delivered much of the beef in the United States, the railroad companies were willing to accept the new form of beef without too costly a fee for the meatpackers.

We’re in a radically different age technologically. The barriers that Armour and Swift faced in the late 19th century — like railroad obstinance — have no good analogies today, and vice versa for those that alternative meats face. Still, Cronon’s reflection on the role of refrigeration in dramatically shifting the American beef industry provides evidence that proponents of alternatives can use to analyze what the future can hold and how to get there.

Going further than price parity, and achieving prices that would make alternatives cheaper than conventional products is likely to be the driving force for increased adoption of meat alternatives.

As for dressed beef, price remains key to driving consumption of alternatives over conventional meat. The industry knows this already and has been trying to lower costs in a bid to lower final consumer price. Achieving price parity with conventional meat will be a difficult task for plant-based meat companies, and an astronomical task for cultivated meat producers. Even still, going further than price parity, and achieving prices that would make alternatives cheaper than conventional products is likely to be the driving force for increased adoption: if alternatives can be consistently cheaper than beef, chicken, or pork, consumers who would otherwise be wary of the processed nature of the product can be won over simply by price.

Still, getting to that point will be hard, and this story of refrigerated beef holds some clues as to why it will be so hard. Meat producers are heavily capitalized incumbents with a long history of ruthless efficiency towards lower costs and thus lower prices. Removing subsidies for the meat industry, as some activists call for, could have some impact on final product price, but that is likely to be far too small a difference in the long run (roughly .5% increase in prices for meat). In short, the potential for top-down, politically-viable restrictions on the industry seems low, and direct competition will be difficult.

One way to overcome, or, maybe more accurately, circumvent, this problem, is to do what the meatpackers did with certain local butchers: join forces. Again, the alternative industry knows this already. Despite the vehement discourse and marketing from alternative producers like Impossible’s Pat Brown that claim to be aimed at destroying the incumbent, major food and meat producers like Nestle, JBS, and Pepsi are either investing in alternatives or creating their own brands. At the same time, Impossible and Beyond have found great success with co-branded products at fast food chains like Burger King, Dunkin, and Starbucks. Continuing successful collaborations, and leveraging those successes for further cost reductions will be necessary to get alternatives into more shopping carts, fast food bags, and stomachs.

Finally, our refrigerated meat parable demonstrates something of a truism: one of the benefits of novel technology is that it can produce novel outcomes. For the meatpackers of the 19th century, this meant re-branding unpopular cuts of meat and selling them with more aesthetic displays, but also with increased sales of meat production byproducts — things like oleomargarine, bouillon, or glue. Such increased diversity of animal-based products, Cronon argues, furthered the commodification of living creatures to the point that consumers of various goods likely had little to no idea that what they were eating or using for adhesive were once parts of a living, breathing animal. Despite the ramifications for cattle, this commodification allowed meatpackers greater flexibility for costly market expansion for their primary meat products.

For alternative meat producers, the potential for productive uses could be as high, without the same ethical or climate impacts. To be fair, it is hard to imagine what kinds of novel products are possible. We live in the age of Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa, which is effectively a taco with a fried tortilla shell made out of a chicken nugget. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come up with all the ideas already. So far, many alternative meat products have been made to replace existing products — plant-based burgers, sausages, meatballs — but few companies have tried to create something actually new and different. While that may be up to test kitchen chefs, creating new products and embracing novel ways to leverage new technologies may be significant for changing the way we think about and consume protein.

This story has largely been one of corporate innovation and business history, but it is also, maybe too subtly, one of the role of the government in the development of the meat industry. From financing and bailing out railroadsThere is a vast literature on the history of U.S. railroads. Please see Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012) for multiple accounts of federal support for railroads.to the security, and more aptly, colonization of the very rangelands that fed the vast cattle herds of the late 19th century,Like railroads, the colonization and “pacification” of the West has an expansive historiography. Please see Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), for a history connecting the beef industry to the United States’ militarized westward expansion.the federal government played a significant role in providing the infrastructure necessary for the beef industry’s rise to prominence. Plant-based and cultivated meat, like their beefy predecessor, deserve and require federal support — in the form of R&D investment and industrial policy — to grow as legitimate alternatives to conventional meats.

It is not yet clear if alternatives can become the 21st century’s refrigerated meat. Even still, we are no doubt at a technological crossroads when it comes to meat — the possibilities are endless. As William Cronon writes, “what seemed ‘artificial and abnormal’ at the end of the nineteenth century would look conventional in the twentieth” (247).