Where’s the beef? The meat crisis of World War II


Not too long ago, at the start of COVID-19, I’m pretty sure most of us remember how Americans baffled the rest of the world by panic buying and hoarding rolls and rolls of toilet paper and how some of these hoarders sold them a much higher price out of the trunks of their cars. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time this had happened during a crisis when Americans ran out of products they deemed essential. The difference was that when the United States entered World War II, instead of toilet paper rolls, the crisis was about meat.


Immediately after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States immediately began rationing supplies. However, it was not the year after that rationing efforts began to limit consumer goods. For example, the meat supply had to be diverted to the military on the battlefield who needed those protein packets compared to the Americans left at home.

In the spring of 1942, the process rationing system was established and implemented through a points system. Items were rationed with designated points based on their availability and demand, much like the British did. It was a good idea. However, the system can be confusing. Ration stamps and paper values ​​changed approximately every four months, and commodities would be removed from the ration list as a new ration booklet was issued. This caused confusion about which stamps could be used and which were no longer valid.

Cuts of meat displayed with ceiling prices and points per pound values, March 1943. (Photo credit: Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images)

The rationing system has always included other sources of protein like eggs, soy products, cheese, beans, peanut butter, and others to ensure that Americans can always get their daily protein intake. They also had this “share the meat” campaign that asked all US citizens over the age of 12 to limit their meat consumption to two and a half pounds of meat per week. At the same time, dietitians, national meat councils and local authorities have teamed up to come up with recipes for protein packs that could replace meat. Regardless of all this, the public resented their inability to buy meat, and soon, illegal meat operations followed.

“Americans! Sharing Meat as a Wartime Necessity,” US Government Printing Office, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (heinzhistorycenter.org)

It wasn’t just because Americans couldn’t go a day without eating meat that they were unhappy with meat controls. Historian Leslie Przybylek pointed out that people had just come out of the Great Depression, which made it impossible for them to have something they enjoyed.

meat crisis

In 1943, beef, pork, veal, lamb and especially steak were already facing shortages. Independent operators launched their own operations to buy and slaughter animals, then sold their meat on the black market at exorbitant prices. Consumers could buy this meat on the black market without wasting their ration points, and they could buy as much as they wanted. Maybe it wouldn’t really be a problem if the same thing happened today, because there are now a number of vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians and other diets that don’t involve animal meat .

It was, meanwhile, a crisis, and everyone went crazy. Businessmen would attend livestock auctions, outbid legal buyers, and then resell the animals to butchers. Black market animals were also slaughtered underground, so they were unsanitary, which meant they posed health risks to consumers.

Steak will prevail

The federal government has tried to stop the illegal sale of meat in various ways. Yet, in 1943, a propaganda film titled “Black Marketing” dealt with illegal meat transactions on the black market. There was also a radio show called “Fibber McGee and Molly” with a storyline about how everyone bought and ate meat on the black market and got sick. Consumers, however, bought none of this propaganda and the underground meat market continued to thrive.

“Dirty Work at the Slaughterhouse,” cartoon by Cy Hungerford, 1945. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 18, 1945 (heinzhistorycenter.org)

The Office of Price Administration seemed hesitant to do much, and “meatleggers,” as black market traders were called in the headlines, still prevailed. The black market problem remained until October 1946 when President Harry Truman finally removed the limit on meat products, and they were no longer included in ration lists, as he feared the public would tired of government restrictions and his discontent escalating. .

We Americans tend to chafe at being ruled by the government (as opposed to ruled) and the breadwinners in WWII didn’t like being told they couldn’t bring back the bacon at home to put on their tables.

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