The History of the US Meat Industry

I recently spent time watching one of my favorite shows, The Food That Built America, on the History channel. This show talks about the background and history of household names of food companies.  From explaining the start of various fast-food restaurants, ketchup, frozen veggies, and soft drinks, the show shows the hard work, struggles and bit of luck that these companies had to go through to get to where they are today. 

The specific episode I was watching was focused on White Castle and the legendary creation of the hamburger. It was said that the burgers were originally cooked as meat balls.  One day, customers were getting frustrated that it was taking so long to get their sandwich, and in a bit of annoyance the cook slapped his spatula on the meat balls and flattened them to the grill. They found that this helped the meat cook more quickly and evenly.  From there the modern burger was born.

Hearing stories like this is really interesting to me. Today, we don’t think twice about where the burger came from, but there was a time that they were an exciting, original product. Similarly, today we don’t really think twice about getting meat from our freezer or buying it at the grocery store. We expect it to be available, high quality, and safe.  But that was not always the case.  Today, we will further discuss some of the history of the meat industry and show just how far we have come.

1640s-Meat was able to be sold or traded in exchange for other goods. In order for this to happen, meat had to be salted, smoked and packed into storage containers to be transported. The term “Meat Packing” originated from the salting and packing of pork in wooden barrels for storage/shipping

1662: William Pynchon-First official commercial meat packer in New England. At this time, much of the meat sold was done so from small retail butcher shops. William’s business grew in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he drove in both cattle and hogs to be butchered.  

1812: Meat Packer, Samuel Wilson, provided beef and pork to the troops during the War of 1812. When Sam was just 14, he joined the continental army where he helped care for cattle, the camp, and butchered and packaged meat products. After the war, Sam partnered with his brother to open E & S Wilson, which was a meat packing company. The business was located on the Hudson river and allowed the brothers to easily move their product. During the war of 1812, soldiers needed meat. Due to their great location and ability to ship product, E & S was the perfect company to ship the product. E & S was contracted to send 2,000 barrels of pork and 3000 barrels of beef to soldiers throughout NY and New Jersey for a year. At this point, Sam became a meat inspector for the army, ensuring that the meat was safe and packaged correctly. While spending time with the soldiers, Sam supposedly became known by his more well known title, and what we know his as today “Uncle Sam”.

1827: Following a time of urbanization, industrial revolution, mechanization, Chicago’s first packing plant was opened. At this point, meat processing was becoming more efficient (nothing like it is today, but very efficient by that days standards).

 1800s: Union Stockyards in Chicago-Major Marketing facility and was known as “Hog Butcher to the World.” Chicago grew as the meat packing capital due to its location. Near livestock, labor, transportation (water and rail), and a market for the products to go to. 

WTTW-Chicago: By the 1870s, the stockyards processed nearly 2 million animals a year.  By 1890, they processed nearly 9 million.  At its peak in the early 1920s, the stockyards employed nearly 40,000 people.

1877: Gustavis Swift electrified production lines and worked with an engineer to engage the first refrigerated railcar. The car, which circulated air over ice to chill the space, allowed for meat to be shipped to the consumers, rather than moving the live animal.

Gustavis partnered with his brother to form Swift and Company. The company’s initial capital in 1885 was $300,000.  When Swift died in 1998, the company was valued at over $25,000,000.

1906: The Jungle-Upton Sinclair-This book focused on showcasing what life was like in Packingtown. Much of the work was dangerous and done without regard to worker safety or sanitation.  Rooms were unventilated, dark. Floors were slippery. The place was dirty and the meat was not kept in cool, clean environment. Workers were paid pennies for hours and days of strenuous labor.

The book was actually intended to be focused on socialism and promoting the socialist party. Though it was a fictionalized story, it showed a true picture of what the meat industry looked like. The book became an international best seller and made it into the hands of President Roosevelt. Following this, Roosevelt started a committee to investigate the working and sanitation conditions of these slaughterhouses. The committee realized that was written was true.

Because of this, the Meat Inspection Act was put into place. This act includes Antemortem, postmortem, carcass inspection, sanitary standards, USDA inspection required for product to be checked for wholesomeness prior to sale.

1919: Green Bay Packers were formed. Funds to pay for uniforms came from the Indian Packing Company. They were willing to sponsor the team on the condition that the team be named after the sponsor.

1950s: Meat packing was at its peak.  Pieced together plants that had started in the 1800s were becoming obsolete and new places were being built. Rather than building in the cities, new plants were put near the livestock. These new plants tended to be large, spacious, well lit, easy to clean, and well designed for efficiency. Additionally, most plants specialized in one specie or segment of production. 

With the invention of refrigerated railcars, improvements in sanitation and packaging, product was now safe to be shipped around the country. 

Because of advancements in efficiency and the ability to ship meat products more efficiently than live animals, processing plants moved away from Chicago Packingtown, and in 1971-The last kill floor at the stockyards was closed.


>6,000 federally inspected meat and poultry facilities

Directly employs >525,000 people

Allied Industries employ ~5.4 million people, ~$200 billion in wages

The US has an incredibly safe and reliable food system. Although there may be concerns based on production system or methods, overall, consumers trust their food. And they should.  The industry has come a long way, and continues to improve in food safety, worker safety and production efficiency and continues to make improvements every day. I think it is pretty cool to see just how far we have come, and how much further we will continue to go.

Click here to hear The Meating Room podcast episode on this topic.


The Constitutional Rights Foundation

Development of the US Meat Industry

Principles of Meat Science


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