The Road To Hamburger Hell
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Marcia Mueller, Armory Of the Revolution
October 2017

Hamburger culture refers to the social, economic, and political network that oversees the use of animals as commodities.... The worst abuses of the burger industry were left out of most early criticism. Those were the suffering and death not only of the cattle but also of the wild animals who were deemed “pests” and “nuisances” and who were blamed for harming ranchers’ profits.

The suffering and death of millions of animals, the environmental degradation and pollution, the ravaging of the rain forests with their loss of habitat and species, along with the displacement of indigenous populations, make the ascendency of hamburger culture look more life a global crime wave than any kind of victory.

hamburger hell

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the latest critics calling on people to stop eating beef. DiCaprio is concerned primarily about the effects of cattle raising on climate change. Other critics focus on the health issues of fast foods, such as the danger of eating meat from animals given hormones and antibiotics. Animal rights activists point to the cruelty involved in raising and killing animals for food. Deciding to quit eating beef is easy. Trying to stop the abuse of animals in agriculture and curtailing environmental destruction is harder and means fighting hamburger culture.

In his book “Animal Oppression & Human Violence,” David A. Nibert uses the expression “hamburger culture” to refer to the social, economic, and political network that oversees the use of animals as commodities. It includes ranchers, factory farms, slaughterhouses, restaurants, lobbyists, politicians, and government agencies. Hamburger culture is a powerful complex that controls animal lives, agricultural resources, and determines policy.

In a recent article for the LA Times, Besha Rodell called the hamburger itself the “ultimate American foodstuff,” a symbol of our culture. It’s as American as apple pie, although McDonald’s, that exemplar of the fast food and burger industry, has never sold 100 billion apple pies, as it has hamburgers, and its burger sales keep climbing.

Hamburger culture in America grew with Big Ag’s campaign to increase protein consumption, particular beef. The meat industry was trying to make ground beef, usually consumed by the poor, more attractive to a wider group of buyers. That way they could sell more grass-fed beef, which costs less to produce, and also find a way to dispose of the dairy cows who were “spent” so quickly after years of exploitation producing calves and milk.

But the cheaper ground meat also had a reputation for questionable quality, particularly after Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” revealed not only the brutal treatment of animals in Chicago’s slaughterhouses but also their unsanitary conditions. Sinclair noted dead rats being shoveled into the ingredients destined for sausage, along with chunks of meat picked up from floors covered with sawdust and the spittle of workers.

The hamburger industry itself began its journey to culinary stardom when J. Walker Anderson turned an old shoe repair shop into a sandwich stand and sold hamburgers for 5 cents each. He soon added 3 more stands, all targeting working class men.

But Anderson needed to make his product a little more upscale to appeal to a wider range of consumers. The hamburger sandwich needed to project a new aura of safety and respectability.

Enter Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. He opened a hamburger business called White Castle, the “white” exemplifying cleanliness and purity and the “castle” signifying strength and status. His next step was to market the newly respectable hamburger to a wider group of consumers, starting with middle class women and their families.

Ingram hired a charismatic spokesperson to join women’s organizations and promote the nutritional value of hamburgers. She always arrived at her discussions with bags of samples for the women to take home. She promoted the hamburger not only as a tasty addition to the family diet but also one that was easy and quick to prepare. She also visited multiple charitable organizations, always with bags of hamburgers to distribute.

To further his support of the hamburger as nutritious and healthy, Ingram arranged for a University of Minnesota medical student to live on nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water. Ingram insisted that the student remained on the diet for three months. During the last few weeks, he was eating 20 to 24 hamburgers a day, while remaining fit and energetic.

Ingram also convinced a food scientist to sign a report that a normal, healthy child could eat nothing but hamburgers and water and fully develop all his/her physical and mental faculties.

Finally college students were target by placing restaurants near campus in the hopes that an acquired addiction to hamburgers would continue after graduation.

But hamburger culture got its biggest boost in the 1950s. World War II was over, incomes were rising, consumer spending was encouraged, and the baby boom was underway. Thus, children were the next target used to promote more hamburger sales.

White Castle offered trading cards with prizes for those who acquired the whole collection. Ray Kroc, by now the owner of McDonald’s, created the clown Ronald McDonald to get the kids’ attention and added prizes to his sandwich boxes. The company spent lavishly on advertising and added its logo, the golden archs which, it was said, could be recognized even by toddlers as the home of hamburger happy meals. The advertising campaign resulted in more franchises, more toys for kids, and more customers. McDonald’s was joined in increasing sales and advertising by Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, and other knock-offs that sprang up through the years to meet the demand.

As hamburger culture grew, it did attract some criticism, but most of it consisted in faulting the exploitation and low pay of workers and the increasingly fast-paced and mechanized work environment that became known as McDonaldization.

Nutritionists also did not believe Ingram’s sales pitch about healthy hamburgers and complained that the burgers were too high in sodium and fat, which contributed to the rising levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease seen in doctors’ offices.

However, the worst abuses of the burger industry were left out of most early criticism. Those were the suffering and death not only of the cattle but also of the wild animals who were deemed “pests” and “nuisances” and who were blamed for harming ranchers’ profits.

In order to accommodate the numbers of animals needed for a country increasing its consumption of meat, Big Ag developed factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Animals from cows to pigs to chickens were warehoused in massive buildings and confined in pens, standing in pools of their own waste. The factory farmed animals underwent abuse from workers from the time they were born until they were forced onto transport trucks and carried to slaughter.

And while McDonald’s advertised its happy meals and tried to promote visions of happy cows, there was nothing happy in the brutal death of animals in slaughterhouses. Gail A. Eisnitz visited some facilities and talked to workers who described what they had seen and had done on the job. They told of cows being hit with whips, chains, shovels, hoes, and boards as they were driven onto the kill floor. They told of pregnant cows in the process of giving birth being pushed into the kill area with their calves hanging out half-born. They told of cows, shackled, throats slit, and dying, with their still-living calves kicking inside. One man told of a steer who got his leg caught in between slats in a pen. Rather than take the time to release his leg, workers burned it off with a blow torch. Other workers told of conscious and living cows having their legs sawed off and their skin removed. So McDonaldization was occurring in the slaughter industry also, with more mechanization and faster killing to achieve greater profits.

But hamburger culture prospered, and the cattle population grew. According to Nibert, by the 1960s there were 160 million cattle in the country, and not all were in factory farms. To have more room, ranchers were also leasing public lands for grazing. The animals were often left untended throughout the year. They froze to death in subzero weather and blizzards. They drowned in floods. They died from sickness, injuries, and birthing problems. Some were attacked by predators because the public lands were often near wilderness areas.

So the attention of the ranchers turned to the predators and other wildlife they perceived as threats. Their fate was in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management and then Fish and Wildlife Services. Those agencies presided over the death of millions of animals. They were poisoned, trapped, and shot. One environmental organization, Wildlife Guardians, tracked the massacres: Between 2004 and 2011, the government agencies killed over 26 million animals, including coyotes, beavers, prairie dogs, foxes, bobcats, badgers, black bears, cougars, and wolves. Since herds of wild horses also occupied land the ranchers desired, many of the horses were rounded up and taken to a limbo of holding pens or sent to slaughter.

Still the cattle numbers were increasing to satisfy the demand for meat. More land became degraded by grazing. Waterways became polluted by animal waste and the pesticides and fertilizers that were used to grow more feed. Enormous amounts of fresh water were also needed for the cattle themselves. According to statistics from Nibert, it requires 26,000 liters of water to produce 2.2 kilograms of beef, and a Time Magazine article noted that the amount of water needed to raise a single 1000-pound steer would float a destroyer. Once fed and watered, the cattle produced 70 to 120 kilograms of methane per cow per year, and the effects of that methane are now being recognized as contributing to climate change.

The domestic damage to animals and environment eventually spilled over the border into Central and South America as industrial agriculture needed more land and more cattle.

Brazil was destined to become one of the major exporters of beef, and the problems it encountered with the spread of cattle ranching are similar to those encountered by Central American countries. Rain forests are being destroyed by the spread of ranches and increasing numbers of cows. Wild animals are losing their habitat, some species are being driven to extinction, and indigenous subsistence farmers are forced from the little land they had so their crops could be replaced by soy beans for the cows. Displaced subsistence farmers migrate to the cities to join the ranks of the urban poor or sign on as virtual slave labor on the ranches.

Some of the cattle ranchers progressed to violence when they met resistance from local farmers. According to Nibert, approximately 1000 small farmers in Brazil were murdered after becoming activists. A gunman hired by two ranchers also murdered Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who had fought for and with the indigenous farmers for their rights to the land.

In Central America, ranchers took land from indigenous people and replaced the corn and beans, their main crops and diet, with food for the cattle. Displaced subsistence farmers were pushed onto marginal lands that were subject to floods and landslides because of ranching deforestation.

As a specific example, in Nicaragua the livestock business is destroying the Bosawos Biospheric Reserve, the third largest forest reserve in the world. It is home to 21 ecosystem types, as well as home to several groups of indigenous people. The ranches often pay traffickers to illegally acquire title to the land. From 1987 to 2010 over 564,000 hectares of the reserve were cleared for ranching, with another 92,000 more hectares in the following 5 years.

In Guatemala cattle ranching in the Peten forest has quadrupled since 1995, with occasional herds numbering over 2 million animals. Some of the ranchers are also drug dealers who use their ranching operations to launder money.

A United Nations study, according to Nibert, shows that 30% of the land surface of the planet is used for some kind of livestock production. The UN predicts that by 2050 an area the size of North America will be required for pasture and cropland. Much of the expansion is expected to come from corporate “land grabs” in Latin America and Africa.

Currently, in spite of the harm to animals, domestic and wild, and damage to the environment, the demand for meat, exemplified by hamburger culture, continues. Eric Schlosser notes that McDonald’s is the biggest buyer of beef in the country. But hamburger culture goes beyond McDonald’s and the fast food business. Hamburgers are on the menu of most restaurants, are a part of millions of backyard barbecues, and are the added ingredient to Hamburger Helper and hundreds of convenient, quick-cook recipes.

By 2016 McDonald’s was in 120 countries with 36,899 restaurants, serving 75 hamburgers a second to 68 million customers per day, and it spent 963 million dollars on advertising. Burger King also claims to sell 75 burgers a second to 15.7 million customers a day in its 15,000 locations around the globe, while Wendy’s sells 6.2 million burgers a day from over 6500 locations. Obviously, that doesn’t include the other fast food clone start-ups.

So hamburger culture has traveled a long way since Billy Ingram peddled his 5-cent sandwiches of dubious hygiene and class affiliation. The growth of hamburger culture and the success of the McDonald’s of the world is touted as a major victory for capitalism.

But the suffering and death of millions of animals, the environmental degradation and pollution, the ravaging of the rain forests with their loss of habitat and species, along with the displacement of indigenous populations, make the ascendency of hamburger culture look more life a global crime wave than any kind of victory.


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