When your great-grandparents purchased chicken, beef, or pork from their local markets, the quality then was much different than it is today. It’s changed so much, in fact, that it makes an interesting story, and it really makes you think about the meat on your plate each day.
Colonial Livestock Herds
The history of meat stems back to the colonial days, when the US was first being settled and even prior to the Civil War, there were people who relied on livestock farmers to sustain their growing villages and cities. Of course, at the same time, many households were completely self-sustained, which means they raised their own cattle, pigs, and chickens alongside their own crops. These animals were organically raised and, of course, grass-fed, and they were slaughtered on-site. These farmers would trade what they could for things they didn’t grow on their own, and this system worked very well for many years. This was some of the highest-quality meat that has ever been present in the US because it was organic, fresh, and locally grown.
The Need for Larger Farms
The population of the United States grew significantly, and by the start of the 19th century, it became obvious that larger livestock farms would be necessary to satisfy growing demand. As the industrial revolution took hold, fewer people had the time to raise livestock, which meant it fell to farmers to find ways to raise growing numbers of animals. Supply only barely met demand in many cases, and there were some places in the country that rarely had access to meat due to the climate. By the 1960s, though refrigerated rail cars made it possible to ship meat across the country. This meat was not as fresh as locally-grown meat, but at the time, it was the only way some families could get it.
The Commercialization of Livestock Farming
By the late 19th century, the industrial revolution was in full swing and most people found themselves working long hours outside the home in factories. Because of this, and because the refrigerated rail car made it possible to transport meat, the number of cattle ranches in the Western United States more than doubled between 1880 and 1900. It was at this time that the feedlot trend started; farmers wanted to maximize the number of animals they could fit into a small space. They also started providing their animals with sub-par feed in these facilities to save money. Packaging and processing facilities started opening left and right, fueling even more jobs across the country.
Quality Then and Now
Back when most households raised and slaughtered their own livestock, meat quality was at its best. These animals were often free-range, they were undeniably organic, and they were slaughtered right on the farm where they were consumed by local families. With the growing population came the need for larger farms, and as farmers struggled with the burden of raising more animals, they found ways to make it simpler, cheaper, and more convenient. Thus, the feedlot was born, and while it was certainly more affordable, it hindered the quality of the meat with sub-par feed and tight, confined spaces.
These days, if you want high-quality meat of any kind, it’s important to look for products that say “organic”, “grass-fed”, and/or “free-range” on the product labeling. These animals were provided with a life very similar to the ones they had back before the civil war, which means the meat is of the highest quality. Brisket is typically sold whole, and it comes from the top of the cow’s front legs. Because these muscles are used more than any other, these cuts can be tougher than most.