Navigating a mind-numbing office park near the interstate the other day, I was stalled at a traffic light, and a curious billboard caught my attention: “Prime rib dinner potato and salad for under $10 call 410-252-xxxx." The billboard stood on the concrete island in the middle of the road, seemingly unaffiliated with any surrounding businesses. Finally, I surmised that it belonged to the shiny Holiday Inn hunkered several hundred yards away, amidst a sea of pavement.
What an odd sign, I thought. Why did they include the phone number? Who would call?
Then I wondered, what’s the news here? Is $10 for prime rib so remarkable? For whom? Why? When? Or rather, since when? Clearly, the Holiday Inn hoped to attract customers to this unlikely locale for Friday night out, and cheap prime rib was its gambit.
But why? Aren’t we meated out yet? I’m meated out every night by 11:30- even if I’ve gone vegan for the day. I’m talking about the late-night ads: Checkers, Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonalds. I know what these companies are up to. They’re taking advantage of the late-night munchies in cruel fashion. But these ads display an impressive battle royale between the fast food chains—a battle to the bottom, a battle to the cheapest meat on earth.
I believe McDonalds won the latest round—this week, at least. In recent ads, McDonalds announced that it was practically giving away triple cheeseburgers: two for $3. Wow. That’s a lot of meat, cheap. Six beef patties for $3. Fifty cents a patty. Three hundred calories per dollar.
McDonalds touts this deal proudly—daringly, even. But their pride is mystifying, if not misplaced, if you think about it for only a minute. How can they sell triple cheesburgers for a buck fifty? It almost reminds me of prices I’ve seen on quaint menus from decades past—and that’s precisely the point. All the fast food chains are bucking inflation, driving down the price of meat—beef, no less, a former delicacy—to never-before-seen lows.
Why is their meat so cheap? Are they serving beef of shockingly low quality? Surely, McDonalds would never risk undoing itself with an E. Coli scare. Alternately, are we facing a ‘meat glut’ like the corn and soybean glut that the journalist Michael Pollan has highlighted of late?
A meat glut is nothing to take lightly. Pollan has bemoaned the health crisis spawned by excess soy and corn, the building blocks of our processed foods. Their excess, thanks to farm subsidies, has made soy and corn so cheap, and in turn, the junk food they comprise. That’s how we arrived at this peculiar state where highly processed Doritos are cheaper per calorie than broccoli. And that’s how we arrived at our current health crisis, where rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart disease skyrocket, especially among the poor.
What happens when you throw $10 prime rib and triple cheesburgers into the mix? This can’t be good. In a way, this trend is surprising because I thought we were as a nation in the midst of an organic, locavore, health food revolution. Farmers markets are popping up everywhere (even in the parking lot of my local mall); people talk obsessively about fiber in their diets, and antioxidants, free radicals and fatty acids—little of which comes from triple cheeseburgers. Obviously, I’ve been trapped in my locavore bubble, because carnivorism still reigns. We’re being stuffed with ever-cheaper meat, and our public health crisis risks exploding.
Nothing announces this countertrend—or our astounding, stubborn ignorance—more than the much ballyhooed ‘Double Down’ sandwich at KFC: a ‘sandwich’ of bacon and melted cheese, held together not by bread, but two pieces of fried chicken. KFC advertises this monstrosity with great enthusiasm. The company is effectively thumbing its nose at all public health indicators—and common sense, and sensible taste—but we go along with it, happily ‘doubling down’ our chances of early morbidity.
American carnivorism involves one very important, worrisome ingredient: oil. Cheap oil supports the fertilizer in the corn and soy that becomes animal feed; it’s in the tractors and transport to market. We could not have cheap meat without cheap oil. So: why the deflation in meat, but not in oil?
In this recession, oil singlehandedly drives inflation; the price of gas alone rises while everything falls or stagnates, waiting patiently for the American consumer to return. With talk of drilling moratoria, continued imports from dangerous places, and impending peak oil, it’s surprising that oil apparently continues to be showered on our meat production, which could be run for much cheaper—indeed, for free, if you consider that cows’ native diet consists of grass. Free grass.
What’s going on? We fret about our national energy independence and sustainability, but the fast food joints are practically falling over themselves to give away their oil-drenched meat. Clearly, oil is not such a precious commodity after all—or we are engaged in some stunning wastefulness. The latter option is more compelling, especially in light of our plodding, nonchalant response to the oil spill in the Gulf, which recently caused the closure of 48,000 square miles to fishing. Forty eight thousand square miles of oil, and we hardly blink—it’s business as usual.
I realize that an economist might say that McDonalds and its competitors are simply engaged in a price war—that’s how they can offer triple cheeseburgers for a buck fifty. And yet, I would counter, this is a mighty long price war; I’ve observed this steady decline in the price of meat for years. It was about five years ago that I was shocked by a Popeye’s billboard hawking fried chicken for 39 cents apiece. I have yet to see that beat, but fear the day is surely coming...
Meat was a delicacy to our parents and grandparents. Just ask them. My mother tells of her whole family (in Irish Catholic quarters, that would be eight people, give or take) sharing a roast chicken for Sunday dinner. Nowadays, that’s dinner for two. On a Wednesday. With beef for breakfast, lunch—and late-night snack. Meat is fast becoming just another throw-away product. In light of our national health and energy crises, this should be very alarming.
Firmin DeBrabander is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore.
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This story was published on May 28, 2010.