Why your hamburger hates America

Brock Davis for The Washington Post

I dare you to celebrate the Fourth of July without a hamburger. What food better conveys the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than an all-American beef patty, grilled in the sunny confines of a grassy back yard?

A burger on the grill says: I have the day off to celebrate this great country, and I am going to relish it.

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Independence Day is a time to celebrate American values — those the founders laid out all those July 4ths ago and the ones we’ve come to embrace today. The importance of fairness. Of a free market. Of America as a land of opportunity.

They are values well worth celebrating. But a hamburger is a terrible way to do it. Because the way that burger, bun, lettuce, tomato and all the other fixings got to your paper plate flies in the face of the values we cherish.

Herewith, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, “let facts be submitted to a candid world” about what a simple hamburger says about our nation’s ideals of freedom and enterprise.

The beef and our right to free enterprise

You won’t find the word “capitalism” in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but a free and open market economy is at the heart of both.

And the U.S. beef industry is a clear example of a restricted, tightly controlled market — with the control coming not from the government, but, as in the time of the Boston Tea Party, from private industry’s largest players. Every American-raised burger (or steak) comes from cattle on one of about 742,000 ranches across the country. Yet 85 percent of them will be slaughtered by one of just four companies.

This concentration is a problem for animals, whose chances of a humane slaughter diminish substantially as they crowd into increasingly mammoth facilities, and it is a problem for workers, who are forced to pick up the pace. It is risky for human health, since centralized processing makes it easy for meat contamination to spread far and wide.

And it is a serious problem for small ranchers. The livelihood of those who raise herds of less than 100 cattle — they constitute more than 90 percent of cattle ranchers — depends on slaughtering their stock within two weeks of the animals reaching prime weight. Yet access to slaughter and sale is tightly controlled by the meatpackers, whose market share is so large that they can dictate prices to ranchers, says Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF, an advocacy group for cattle ranchers.

“Competition in the industry is almost nonexistent,” Bullard says. “The economics is forcing people out of business.” Since 1980, 42 percent of ranchers have called it quits.

Concentration is also bad for shoppers. The retail price of beef has been inching up since the 1990s, but “the inflation-adjusted price farmers receive has been going down,” says Robert Taylor, an Auburn University expert on the beef industry. “In a competitive market, [that] would translate into retail food prices going down . . . and that has not happened.”

Indeed, the share going to ranchers has dropped by about 10 percent, according to an analysis by Taylor of U.S. Agriculture Department data.

Consider how the beef industry echoes the causes of the Boston Tea Party, which rose up to protest not merely new taxes in the Tea Act but also the monopoly the law gave to a private corporation, the British East India Company. Burgers’ dominance of our celebratory cookout menus is not a problem, but the monopoly enjoyed by just four companies in selling them is.

The bun and a fair price

It’s a safe bet that at least one in four hamburger buns doled out at holiday barbecues this summer will come from Wal-Mart. The discounter-turned-grocery-behemoth controls at least a quarter of food sales nationwide, according to an analysis of USDA and Wal-Mart data. In 29 metropolitan areas, it controls more than 50 percent, say analysts at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents supermarket workers. Wal-Mart has won that rank through low prices, with at least one unintended and deeply un-American effect: It has helped put smaller farmers out of business, in part by manufacturing food products — including burger buns.

Wal-Mart doesn’t make its buns itself but contracts with big food companies such as ConAgra to bake them. The baker (or bakery division) needs 10 times the amount of flour it used to need for smaller demand, and so it requires a mill that can refine 10 times as much grain.

That grain mill, in turn, has two choices. It can buy grain from 10 times as many small wheat farmers or streamline the process and find one, giant farmer that can meet the entire order, probably at a lower cost. The more market share Wal-Mart attains, the more buns are bought from giant bakers — and fewer from small-scale ones.

And by cutting out the middle man — think Sara Lee or Wonder Bread — Wal-Mart’s prices on its house brands are phenomenally competitive.

It’s not just prices for the buns, but also for the ketchup, mustard, relish and whatever else you set out on your picnic table. As Wal-Mart rapidly expanded its grocery business in the 1990s, it set off a wave of consolidation in food retail. Big agricultural operations now dominate the U.S. food supply, with farms that average 2,200 acres providing most of our food. That puts American agriculture on a scale in dramatic excess of what Jefferson probably admired when he observed in a 1785 letter to James Madison that “the small landholders are the most precious part of a state” — and well beyond the 160 acres that President Abraham Lincoln gave to the homesteaders who settled the Great Plains.

Tomatoes, onions and the land of opportunity

No burger is complete without the fixings: tomatoes and onions. (More on lettuce later.) Yet the farmworkers who pick those vegetables toil in a world that lacks something at the root of the founders’ focus on free enterprise: fairness, a reward for hard work and the corresponding opportunity to improve one’s lot.

Nearly every piece of produce that makes it to a grocery store shelf is picked by hand, and it is almost always picked by immigrants earning paltry wages. Nearly three-quarters of them come from Mexico, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Center for Farmworker Health, and they typically earn between $10,000 and $13,000 a year.

Every year, farmworkers across the country file suits against farmers and labor contractors for wage theft, chemical exposure, dangerous work conditions and injury, among other things. This spring, for example, onion harvesters in Californiasued several labor contractors and the farm, Calandri SonRise, for which they picked, alleging that they did not pay minimum wage. Workers there made as little as $80 for a shift that lasted at least 15 hours — about $5.33 an hour, or about $2.50 less than the hourly minimum wage in California.

I saw this treatment firsthand when I worked in garlic fields in California while researching a book on the U.S. food industry. There, I earned as little as $2 an hour in the four weeks I managed to work before getting injured. My co-workers — who, as experienced pickers, earned more than me but still less than minimum wage — believed that America was the land of opportunity, but they weren’t so naiive as to think our working conditions were fair. One colleague asked me if I would go on television and talk about what life was like in the fields. “They’ll listen to you,” he said. “They won’t listen to me.”

Tomato workers, however, have generally had it the worst. In North Carolina, tomato harvesters have been exposed to pesticides so virulent that women have borne children without arms and legs. And in the fields of southern Florida, the center of America’s tomato industry in the winter, more than 1,000 workers have been freed from modern slavery rings, resulting in a raft of convictions in seven cases but not, prosectors say, an eradication of the problem.

This contradicts not just American notions of fairness but our industrial economic logic, too. Henry Ford was often exalted for his innovation of paying workers enough that they could afford to buy his products. But farmworkers are frequently unable to buy the food they pick once it reaches a store. Paying them better would not typically result in much higher retail prices for produce; a 40 percent increase in farmworker wages would probably cost each American household an additional $16 a year.

Lettuce and equality

The founding fathers understood food’s central importance in building a nation that lived up to its ideals. In 1782, describing his state of Virginia, Jefferson noted a divide between the diets of the poor and the wealthy. The wealthy ate vegetables, but the poor did not — a problem, since “the climate require[d] indispensably a free use of vegetable food, for health as well as comfort.” He called this state of affairs “inexcusable.”

And yet, 230 years later, it persists — as both myth and fact. As a cultural myth, the class connotations of food are stark: Fresh, healthy food has come to be identified as the preferred fare of the affluent, while processed food is the stuff of the masses. Eating well is the province of the elite, and everyone else just has to get by.

Factually, 13.6 million Americans, many of them low-income, live in communities with limited access to supermarkets and the fresh food, such as lettuce, they can provide. What’s more, the food supply most readily available to all of us is heavy on junk that our agricultural policies have made cheaper per bite (and calorie) than healthy, whole ingredients.

This is inequity at its most fundamental. A good diet is as integral to life and liberty as is clean water, and yet we accept as a matter of course that it is more difficult for the poor to eat well than the rich. We shouldn’t accept it for a very profound, very American and very good reason: It is not fair to build a society in which only some people have access to resources that are required for life. Especially not in a country where, our Declaration of Independence states, all men are created equal.

This Fourth of July, I’ll wonder what the founders might think of the meal we use to celebrate the ideals they bequeathed to us — whether they’d condone a system that is dominated by giant corporations, that does not pay fair wages, that feeds the wealthy well and the poor poorly. But really, that’s missing the point. The question isn’t whether the founders would have approved of this; it’s whether we, the Americans of today, do.

Tracie McMillan is the author of “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

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