Why are the only American meat options chicken, beef and pork?

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The United States is a massive country, one filled with a variety of regional cuisines and a wide array of potentially edible animals. Why, then, does such a small selection of animals show up in grocery stores?

Top image: WWII propaganda posters created by Frederick H. K. Henrion for the British War Office/Ministry of Food.

Americans are big consumers of meat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, persons in developed countries consumed 82.1 kg of meat per capita in 2005, while persons in the United States ate 126.6 kg of meat per capita that same year. However, when it comes to land animals, there are just a handful of staple American meats: beef, pork, chicken, and turkey (and, to a lesser extent, lamb and duck). Cows and pigs were brought to the Americas from Europe, but the North American continent already possessed a cornucopia of edible animals: bison, moose, deer, possum, squirrel, pigeon, pheasant, and rabbit. And while early European settlers still craved and farmed the meats they had enjoyed back home, Americans long took advantage of this bounty—including during the lean times of Great Depression and during the "Meatless Monday" era of World War II. One only need look as far back as earlier editions of Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking to see a mainstream cookbook that offered instructions on the proper preparations of squirrel.

But as the country became more industrialized, the meat side of the mainstream American diet gradually became less varied. Bison was hunted to near-extinction, but other game animals have faded from culinary popularity. Unless you're a hunter (or friends with one), it's unlikely that deer and squirrel show up on your American dinner table. Rabbits, once promoted as a patriotic wartime food in the United States and Britain, are now seen more as pets (or a source of angora) than food. Americans can find goat cheese in the local supermarket, but goat meat is a bit harder to come by.

The US has inherited certain food taboos—such as those against eating horses and dogs—from the English. But the reason some meats have become entrenched in American culture while others are hard sells is also closely linked to the history of these meats' industries. The rise of the beef and pork industry—followed by poultry—fed a demand for cheap meat and drove those foods into American supermarkets, and has made it harder for other meats to grab a hoof hold.


The Rise of Beef

Before the American Civil War, Americans actually ate very little in the way of beef. Before the country started pushing West, most of the cattle Americans kept were dairy cattle, the sort that earn their room and board before heading to the abattoir. And beef wasn't as easy to preserve as pork, which could be salted or smoked. But as Americans spread out across the continent, so too did cows and pigs, and the availability of land made beef ranching practical where it hadn't been on the East Coast.

The growth of cattle ranching coincided with two very important events. One was the growth of cities; New York, Boston, and Chicago saw a swell in populations, and those populations needed food. (According to the USDA, salt pork also became increasingly popular with these urban populations.) Another was an epidemic of rinderpest, a cow-killing viral plague, that broke out among cattle across Europe in the 19th century. There was still a strong demand for beef in Britain and other parts of Europe, and if these folks wanted to eat beef, they would have to turn to the American supply. At the same time, Maureen Ogle notes in In Meat We Trust, some Americans and Europeans in the late 19th century linked diet to national character, with beef becoming a symbol of vital power.

The cattle drive looms large in American mythology, but packing and shipping technology would eventually obviate the need for cattle drives and make beef available to the urban consumer. Railroad tracks would eventually criss-cross the country and the beef packing industry would become a powerful component in the national food chain. In 1875, Gustavus Swift introduced the Swift Refrigerator Line, which, using ice and salt, allowed for the temperature-controlled carriage of dressed beef and pork from the West to the rest of the country. This fledgling beef industry was not without its setbacks; ranchers allowed their cattle to overgraze the land and tens of thousands of cattle would die in the harsh winters of 1885-86 and 1886-87. But beef packers, serving as the middlemen between ranchers and consumers, helped to push cheap beef into the marketplace: They would buy up cattle in massive volumes and subsidize the low cost of meat with other beef products, including bones, blood, marrow, hides, and the fat for oleomargarine. (They would also face charges of collusion as anti-monopoly legislation was introduced.) Thus the groundwork for the modern American beef industry was laid.

Even as urban Americans became increasingly removed from their food supply at the turn of the century, beef became an integral part of the American diet. A brief "beef famine" in 1902 saw both beef prices and American outrage soar. Even in the wake of the lean years of the Great Depression and during the meat rationing of World War II, the national appetite for beef continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and as incomes rose in post-war America, beef became a symbol of the suburban middle class, associated with, for example, backyard barbecues. And the beef industry matched the growing demanding for convenience, offering canned beef perfect for chili and hash. Beef wasn't just popular, not just a legacy from European meat-eaters; beef was modern.

Why You Don't Typically See Venison in the Supermarket

Now, there is a key aspect of the beef business that I have skipped over, a rather important event that happened in 1906: the publication of Upton Sinclair's seminal work The Jungle. The first law requiring the inspection of meat products actual predates The Jungle, having been signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890. That law required that the USDA, through the Bureau of Animal Industry, inspect salted pork and bacon (and later, al live cattle and beef) intended for exportation. But 1906 saw the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, and today federal tax dollars pay for USDA inspections of standard livestock, such as cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.

But deer and elk, even when ranched, are a different matter. Deer ranching did not grow with the beef and pork industries, and deer inspections are not covered but the FMIA and are non-amenable species in the context of USDA inspection. If a rancher wants their deer inspected by a USDA agent, they have to pay an hourly rate for a voluntary inspection. Not surprisingly, many meat buyers want their meat to be USDA inspected, which adds an expense to venison as a meat product. For non-hunters (and folks who don't get their meat from hunters), deer and elk are specialty meats, more likely to be consumed in a restaurant than at home. However, the US does also import venison; in 1997, the US imported 1,000 pounds of venison from New Zealand, which has a large and well organized deer industry.

How Factory Farming and Supermarkets Made Chicken King

Up until the 1930s, chicken was both a greater luxury and a more seasonal food than it is today. Many Americans kept chickens, but for the eggs. Chickens didn't always survive the winter, and before refrigeration, the meat did not last long, so chicken meat was an occasional and incidental byproduct of egg farming. The same packing companies that were so successful with dressing beef attempted to do the same with chicken, but to little avail. The promise of members of the Republican Party that Herbert Hoover would put a chicken in every pot meant a lot when chicken was a pricy treat.

It was Jesse Jewell who turned chicken meat into a business. The University of Georgia had researched factory-style chicken production in the 1920s, hoping to diversify the region's agricultural economy. Jewell's own farm was failing, so he decided to try a business based on UGA's research, loaning chicks to farmers and then paying them after he sold the adult chickens. The growth of Jewell's burgeoning poultry business coincided with the advent of World War II, when much of the country's meat and pork was being shipped to soldiers oversees. The market was ripe for chicken, a familiar meat that wasn't yet ready for shipping to soldiers but was suddenly more plentiful than it had been before.

By the time Jewell came on the scene, supermarkets had already entered the industrial fray, selling food to urbanites and, as time went on, the growing population of suburbanites. In the post-war era, chickens were such a key shopping item that chain grocery stores would sell broilers below cost as a loss leader. Poultry price wars fueled a demand for more and cheaper chickens, which would eventually take the form of chicken soup, chicken nuggets, and all manner of chicken food things. The inspection of domestic fowl by the USDA would be required by the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957.

Whatever Happened to Rabbit?

Why don't Americans eat more rabbit? This is a question that pops up every now and then in the media as folks point out that rabbits require few resources, provide lean meat, and are beloved by many a chef for their flavor. And during World War II, Americans and Brits were encouraged to farm rabbits much as they were encouraged to grow victory gardens.

Rabbits didn't enjoy the same industrial farming boom that chickens did in the US. While Jewell's chicken farming rose out of the scrambling farms of Georgia, the larger producers and processors of rabbit meat during the 1920s and 1930s were located in Southern California, especially in the Los Angeles area. As Southern California became more industrialized, rabbit production declined. Although some rabbit farmers did move to other parts of the country, rabbits never quite made the move from America's backyards to its supermarkets. Like deer and elk, rabbits are a non-amenable species under the USDA's meat and poultry inspection program.

Compared to most of the world, however, the US is a relatively large producer of rabbit, having produced 35,000 tons of rabbit carcass in 1990. (Though that pales in comparison to Italy's 300,000 tons and France's 150,000 tons.) But while rabbit isn't consumed on the level of cows, pigs, birds, and ovines, Americans consume far less rabbit meat per capita than do folks in many European and North African countries and in the former Soviet states.


How Immigration Can Change Our Eating Habits

In his book An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen argues that anti-immigration policies during the 20th century helped American cuisine to stagnate in the wake of Prohibition. But in more recent decades, we've seen Americans embrace a wider array of cuisines. And that may have an impact on the meats Americans choose to eat. For example, the number of meat goats raised in the US has gone from 415,000 to 2.3m between 1987 and 2013, and an article in The Economist credits that growth with the influx of immigrants from cultures that eat more goat—and other Americans who are willing to branch out meat-wise. It hardly puts goat on the footing of other American meats, but it's a sign that the future of American cuisine could include a greater variety of meat.

Further Reading:

In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America by Maureen Ogle


Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef by Betty Fussell


Beef by Andrew Rimas and Evan D.G. Fraser