Beef So Fresh It’s a Cash Cow

Turning life into food isn't free

First, a disclaimer–this is neither well-thought out nor well written. Also, here is the NPR article that goes with this picture. Photo credit is Greg Zabilski/ABC. Now to the somewhat predictable spin-off rant:

The host of this show (human pictured above) apparently wants people to think about what they are eating. And to think about it as a good American consumer would: in terms of how much it costs. This is veiled in the guise of encouraging more healthy eating (does cheaper automatically equal less healthy?). I’m not criticizing his project as a whole, just pointing to a few implications it has, or, more accurately, the delicious implications of the image above. (I’m also not criticizing the NPR story, which is focused on different issues and is worth reading for itself, especially if you want to know more about the TV show that this image is from.)

I frequently (some might say obsessively) use bovines to explore a lot of cultural issues, and this image and its accompanying article smacks you in the face with a few of them: animals-as-food, commodification of life, and placing monetary value on the spoils of death, to name a few. This cow is being used as a powerful device to illustrate to people how much they are paying for which cuts of meat. It is powerful, for one reason, because the connection between the live animal and its edible products are normally not illustrated so graphically. Cash value has been physically inscribed on a live animal that will, ostensibly, be killed and eaten. This cow stands for the idea of nutritional value for one’s money, and stands for all the beef that Americans consume. (I do wonder if the show at all addresses how value is added to cattle and the various cuts of meat they become…and this reminds me that I should really re-read and do a book review of Shukin’s Animal Capital.)

Honestly, I just love how blatantly monetary value is inscribed on this animal–it becomes a thing, a commodity, right before our eyes, even as it continues to embody movements that might be construed as independent and life-like. But this animals isn’t given a subjectivity of its own. Rather, it is made an object of education; a symbol of itself as a heavily used commodity in the U.S., of American eating and spending habits, of many things, just in this one image. The human next to it uses the animal and makes it mean certain things for his audience; lays his hand on its shoulder as if its body were a blackboard–as, indeed, it has been visually manipulated to become. It is on a leash, and at any moment the man can pick up the other end and have this mobile blackboard tethered to him–the man is in control of this might-as-well-be-dinner educational tool. (Unrelated note: wtf is with the washing machine in the right-hand corner?) This animal is marked for consumption–both as a commodity and as an eventual collection of differentially priced food items.

I just find this all very interesting, is all, and when I come across images such as this one which so clearly capture America’s relationship with food animals and consumerism, I squeal a little inside and have to share it. Mmm…semiotics!



Filed under Beginning of the Body, Bovinity Infinity, Commodification, Contemporary, Media, Television and Movies

4 responses to “Beef So Fresh It’s a Cash Cow

  1. I’d never use a cow to get the point across either but I think it works for what Jamie Oliver is trying to show. And nowhere on this cow can you see the “pink slime” cut…
    Thanks for visiting my blog? By the way, since your background is in anthropology, do you know who came up first with the concept that we see a cow every day? I can’t seem to find the answer online anywhere.


    • No idea where the cow-a-day theory came from…

      It would be interesting to think about the various reasons why using the cow is effective in getting Oliver’s point across–for instance, juxtaposing its very alive-ness with the pink slime, and pointing out that these two entities are on some level “the same,” and then implicating the audience in the transformation of one into the other.

      Anyway, thanks for posting, and thanks for your continued updating of your awesome blog–what a fantastic archive you’re assembling!


  2. C Cecale

    totally interesting post – and i love your bovininity affinity!!!

    i can’t help but think “poor cow!” as i’m watching the agency be stripped from the animal (and also thinking about it’s grim future), but what does it even mean to strip agency from an animal without being able to access it’s consciousness? is that a silly question? how do we act towards it or around it or is there another way to respect it’s agency and have a relationship with it? i’m a super layperson here, so i really don’t know but i bet you said some awesome stuff about agency and human/animal relations in your thesis!!!!

    p.s. i loved your point about turning the cow into a commodity – giving the cow a “purpose” in our society, or making it “useful,” or “productive”… as if to be alive, there needs to be a purpose and how inherently linked that is to denying it’s agency. then, linking it into our own spending habits and consumer culture blows my mind. KEEP POSTING PLEASE!!!!


    • Animals are most often granted agency if they are categorized as closer to humans, and then their agency is imagined in a very human-like way (see the way people talk about pet dogs “wanting” certain things, or even domesticated farm animals having minds of their own–or not. In the case of the latter, I find it’s often people not involved in agriculture or livestock that attribute pet-like human agency to those types of animals).

      Livestock, interestingly, are not so much allowed a purpose in and of themselves, as, for instance, endangered species are. It’s as if they are not really “natural” enough, but not cultural enough to merit much humane consideration. This sounds like an attack on livestock producers, which it’s not meant to be…just the beginnings of a measured critique on the complicated system of industries in which many of us are complicit that employ various animals for different human ends.

      In the U.S., at least, categorizations of non-human animals map onto one another–along lines of nature/culture, subject/object (where issues of agency might be explored), etc. Commodification is a whole other complication on top of that.

      Back to your question about stripping agency–which I don’t think is silly. It is almost impossible, I guess, to either attribute or deny agency to non-humans, as we have no real way of knowing what that would mean to them. The best we can do is think about it along human lines, even though it may be a little silly to try and find a parallel for non-humans. And in any case, the attribution or denial of things like agency just serves to highlight our own power over the definition of such things for other species. Not a new point, by any means, but one to keep in mind, along with the rest of the mess.


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