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The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism

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Abstract and Figures

This article focuses on the quotidian but profound remaking of the materiality of eating in the science and industry of animal feeding in the United States. I sketch a big picture: the wholesale remaking of streams of matter and energy between microorganisms, plants, animals and humans in the twentieth century. In the development the medicated feed industry, existing metabolic relationships within and between animals, plants and microbes cells were sundered, selectively augmented, and reconnected anew. My focus is not on any single case of industrialization within this picture - beef or milk or hormones or chickens, but the industrialization of metabolism itself. The systematic remaking, rescaling and reordering of matter’s movement through bacteria, plants, and animals, is what makes the history of medicated feed significant. It constitutes a wholesale rearrangement of relations constituting the metabolic web in which human eating is hung.
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The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism
What do food animals eat? Most attention to this question tends to focus on
contaminants that might reach humans (McEvoy 2016). Yet the biomass of domesticated animals
far outstrips that of humans on earth, and thus the materials that flow into and out of them do so
at a scale that is environmentally and historically consequential well beyond any individual eaters
(Smil 2013). Bucolic images of chickens in barnyards or cows in grassy fields aside, the majority
of food animals raised in the United States eat complex mixtures of macronutrients, drugs and
supplements variably called condimental feed, formulated feed, manufactured feed, or medicated
feed. The term medicated feed emerged late in the nineteenth century, and was adapted in the
twentieth to mean small amounts of supplement added to a bulk amount of fodder, whether that
be vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, medicines, growth promoters, a smell or flavor
enhancer - or more likely a complex combination of these. Medicated feed now shapes the
nutrition, growth, and health of most food animals in the United States for their entire lives.
This article focuses on the quotidian but profound remaking of the materiality of eating in
the science and industry of animal feeding in the United States. I sketch a big picture: the
wholesale remaking of streams of matter and energy between microorganisms, plants, animals
and humans in the twentieth century. In the development the medicated feed industry, existing
metabolic relationships within and between animals, plants and microbes cells were sundered,
selectively augmented, and reconnected anew. My focus is not on any single case of
industrialization within this picture - beef or milk or hormones or chickens, but the
industrialization of metabolism itself (Marcus 1993; Dupuis 2002; Boyd 2001; Schrepfer,
Scranton, and Scranton 2004).
The systematic remaking, rescaling and reordering of matter’s movement through
bacteria, plants, and animals, is what makes the history of medicated feed significant. It
constitutes a wholesale rearrangement of relations constituting the metabolic web in which human
eating is hung. Metabolism describes the biochemical processes by which organisms use food
and oxygen and process drugs and toxins. It is an organized set of biochemical reactions:
enzymes catalyze the conversion of substances into different forms, and use or produce energy
for the cell or body. Metabolic relations also link individuals and species to one another, as the
metabolic output of one organism may furnish materials necessary to another’s life. To
industrialize means to introduce industry at a large scale, to reorganize an economy for the
purpose of manufacturing. It might seem counterintuitive that this should occur in the
microscopic realm of the biochemistry of the agricultural cell, but this is what I mean in using the
phrase industrialization of metabolism literally: metabolic processes such as fat synthesis were
targeted for augmentation or acceleration relative to others, and key enzymes were employed to
scale up particular chemical conversions in and between organisms. Scientists and industrial feed-
manufacturers moved from questions of nutritional insufficiencies, to problems of metabolic
efficiencies, retooling and accelerating systems of chemical conversions.
In the context of this volume, metabolism is both an important empirical site for
understanding food production, and a heuristic: can we understand eating better by allowing
metabolic relations writ large to decenter human food as the object of inquiry? By focusing on
metabolism not food, this study contributes to a growing social science literature at several levels.
First, the cultural, medical and political prominence of metabolic disorders such as diabetes has
brought scholarly attention to what is done in the name of metabolic health at the level of
societies and individuals (Yates-Doerr 2015; Solomon 2016; Guthman 2011; Moran-Thomas
2018; Roberts 2017). Examining medical and social efforts to manage metabolic disorder, this
work asks: one, how do people organize action around metabolism, and two, what kind of
concept is it? I extend those questions by focusing on metabolism as the technical object of
intervention in animal feed science. As such, metabolism is a set of biochemical relations that
both formats and is formatted by economic and social life.
Simultaneously but quite separately, twentieth century theoretical uses of metabolism as a
framework for measuring ecosystem dynamics are making a return in systems analysis
approaches, tracking the fate of energy and matter across ecological or social units from ponds to
cities (Mitman 1992). This approach is quantitative, for example in Vaclav Smil’s astonishing
estimates of relative biomass of plants, wild animals, domesticated animals and humans after
sustained “harvesting [of] the biosphere” (Smil 2013); and qualitative, as in the revival of Karl
Marx’s critiques of agriculture under capitalism in light of ecological crisis, which John Bellamy
Foster terms a theory of “metabolic rift” (Foster 2000). Marx decried rupture in cycles of growth
and decay caused by taking nitrogenous waste such as bird guano away from its origin (Peru) and
shipping it to Europe to increase agricultural production in the nitrogen-depleted soils.
Moore argues that the world has seen a historical “metabolic shift” in which humans do not so
much cause a rift in nature, damaging an ecology that is outside of themselves, as remake the
material natural world (of which they are a part) through unrelenting capital accumulation.
Capitalism, he argues, does not have an ecology, it is an ecology, one brought to breaking point
as low-cost extraction becomes more difficult (Moore 2015). Jonathan Wells offers a related
framework in The Metabolic Ghetto, arguing that food is power, and systemic inequalities in
social power under capitalism manifest as systemic inequalities in metabolic health, also seeing
capitalism as a root cause and explanatory ground for the contemporary human condition (2016).
This account of animal feed treads a middle ground between ethnographic study of any
one instance of metabolism in medicine or culture, and the world-historical macro scale of
capitalism as an explanation. Here I follow historian Tiago Saraiva, who in his work on animal
and plant science in fascist Europe has argued convincingly for a refusal to accept that all forms
of control of life are the same. Rather than seeing fascist pig breeding as yet another form of
biopolitics and therefore capable of being equated to capitalist pig breeding as two variations of a
general process of modernization, Saraiva asks how “the increasing ability to tinker with plant
and animal life…enabled the materialization of different political projects, alternative
modernities, good and bad” (Saraiva 2016, 12). The question is not how fascism was a pre-given
“context” that shaped the pig or the potato, but the reverse: how these technical practices and new
organismal forms themselves constituted, informed or enabled fascist regimes and particular
social collectives. Technoscientific organisms, he argues, are a form of world-making.
What kind of modernity is made by feeding practices? While it is clear that medicated
feed designed to make more animal products in less time with less input is an instance of
increasing capital accumulation, herein lies the beginning of inquiry, rather than its conclusion:
what world(s) are made in and through the industrialization of metabolism? Quite literally, what
is constituted, what gets suppressed, and what is transformed? How exactly is “cheap food”
made possible, with what specific effects on the material conditions of contemporary life?
Indeed, for those who care less about social theory and want to know what this history means for
human health, concrete details of medicated feed’s components and the industrialization of
metabolism provide insight into the nature of human diets today, raising new questions about the
systemic rather than the overtly toxic impacts of these hidden practices.
The history of animal feeding over the twentieth century is a complicated story, even if
limited to the United States. Accordingly, while recounting events chronologically, I have
focused the narrative to reflect three facets of the industrialization of metabolism: conversion,
scale, and acceleration. The first analyses the animal as a machine converter of matter and energy
between 1880 and 1920, the period in which “scientific feeding” was established. The second
section turns to more profound metabolic rearrangements that came with a shift from protein
obsessions to single molecules, particularly vitamins and amino acids. Microbial fermentation
and synthetic chemistry were used to mass-produce key nutrients, lowering costs. The joining of
microbial metabolism, chemical synthesis and animal metabolism into new chains of
consumption and conversion between 1920 and 1960 meant new kinds of relations, but also new
scales and proportions for the organic molecules moving along these conduits.
The third aspect of industrializing metabolism is temporal: getting animals to maturity
and market faster. Acceleration is already implicit in conversion and the rescaling of nutrient
flows, but post-war growth promoters further foreshortened animal life. This section discusses
“growth promoters,” from substances that encouraged growth to full potential (such as vitamins)
to substances that changed the ratio of food to growth (such as antibiotics). I conclude by
discussing the historical centrality of growth in nutrition science and animal husbandry, and its
occlusion of alternative questions that should be asked concerning the food of our food.
Animals as Chemical Converters: Protein Obsessions in the early Twentieth Century
Organisms have been seen in terms of machines (and machines in terms of organisms) in
many ways over the course of history (Canguilhem 2000). Animal metabolism as a chemical
“converter of matter and energy” is a peculiar species of this analogy (Armsby and Moulton
1925). This language of chemical conversion and an obsession with protein originates with
agricultural science in nineteenth century Europe, but takes a specifically American form in the
twentieth century at the nexus of farming and manufacturing. I begin with the logic and thereby
arrive at the practice of the animal as chemical converter.
The animal converter is different from the human motorfocus of nutrition science in
this period (Aronson 1982; Mudry 2009; Cullather 2007; Neswald 2013; Carpenter 1994;
Rabinbach 1992). The human motor needed calories - fuel for socially and economically
important activities of working and fighting, or perhaps for elites, thinking or athleticism. Protein
was often subsumed into the calorie question in research on human nutrition (Treitel 2008). By
contrast, the job of animals was tied to matter that farmers could sell, and consumers could eat.
Energy was important in its conservation: manuals of animal feeding included advice on
“Principles That Relate to Restfulness” to ensure costly feed wasn’t wasted as movement and heat
(Shaw 1907). But animal nutrition was focused on protein matter first, and energy a distant
second; meat was sold by the pound, milk by the gallon, wool by the bale.
This framework is best understood via Henry Prentiss Armsby (1853-1921), founding
director of the Institute for Animal Nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University, President of
the Society for Agricultural Science, translator of German manuals of feeding standards, founder
of the American Society of Animal Nutrition, and ardent investigator of the chemical and
physical “laws” of animal nutrition.
He saw the animal body as obligatory passage point
between the inedible to the edible:
Only the smaller portion of the solar energy or the proteins which are stored up in the
farmer’s crops is directly available for man’s use…the essential function of the animal in
a permanent system of agriculture is the conversion of as large a proportion as possible of
these inedible products into forms whose matter and energy can be utilized by the human
body (1917, xv).
Unlike animal labor power substitutable by “inanimate motors,” animal metabolism was the sole
way to access most energy and protein in plants: for conversion of “the by-products of the farm
and factory into human food, there is as yet no suggestion of an agency which can take the place
of the animal body” (1917, xv).
Armsby’s writings usefully represent the agricultural science of his time. The purpose of
elucidating laws of nutrition was to make most profitable use of the world’s matter. The purpose
of instruments such as respiration calorimeters was to:
gain as intimate a knowledge as possible of the fundamental laws governing the nutrition
of farm animals, so that the transformation may be effected with the least possible waste,
and, on the other hand, the ability so to apply these laws as to secure the greatest
economic return, since it must never be forgotten that the criterion of success in
agriculture is not a maximum production but a maximum profit. (1917, xv-xvi, emphasis
Armsby’s generation strove to import German agricultural science into American farming
practices, which involved a “glorification of albuminous substances” - those containing nitrogen
(Mendel 1923, 12). The question of how the nitrogen in soil was turned into plants, and how
those plants were turned into animal matter was the central preoccupation of the day (McCay
1973). Because the animal body could build up “a great variety of specific proteins which are
peculiar to itself and which differ in properties and chemical structure from the proteins…of the
vegetable kingdom,” protein metabolism was the specific site of profit maximization (Armsby
1917, 161). Energetics were important, but Armsby highlighted that the enzymes and hormones
running metabolism were themselves proteins, each a combination of different amino acids. Thus
the “machinery” of metabolism had to be provisioned precisely:
no amount of coal under the boiler will enable an electric plant to furnish a normal
amount of current if the insulation of the generator is defective. For example, if
tryptophan is necessary for the formation of some essential internal secretion, a diet
lacking that substance, however much energy it might furnish, would fail to support the
organism permanently. (1917, 184)
In other words, animal metabolisms were converters made of protein components; animal
nutrition science was charged with knowing just what was needed when to construct and run
those converters most efficiently.
In Search of Cheap Proteins: The Establishment of a Manufactured Feed Industry, 1890-1920
Here at the nexus of protein, efficiency, and profit, a growing manufacturing sector
became sutured to academic biochemistry and physiology of animal growth. High protein feed
could produce more weight, but not necessarily more profit, depending on expenses. The ideal
was a low-cost/high-protein feed. If we think of emergence of the manufactured feed industry as
a set of pushes and pulls from different sectors, a protein-dominated outlook led to a “pull” by
science-advised farmers, just as the manufacturing sector was providing a push. A history of the
international chemical industry between 1900 and 1930 drily observes of production of fertilizer
that the “American attitude to the size of chemical works…was, in short, to build a large plant
and then find a market for the products” (Haber 1971, 176). Therefore, one does not have to
presume that pull preceded push, which in this case was problematic processing wastes in other
Fish entrails from canning plants on the West coast and carcass trimmings in the Midwest
and South constituted intrusive rotting urban hazards, alongside “tankage” from animal rendering
(Kiechle 2017). Growing markets for plant oils generated voluminous mash wastes. Food
processing entailed by-products: buttermilk, skim milk and whey from dairy production,
molasses from sugar refining. While it was longstanding practice to feed leftover mash from
brewing beer to animals, this was a local phenomenon, with cattle yards beside breweries turning
brewing waste to milk for city-dwellers (DuPuis 2002).
Processing technologies of
homogenizing, drying and pelleting developed for storing and transporting foods over time and
distance changed these local waste economies. Tankage became “crackling” and was pelletized;
dried distiller’s grains began to move along the same rail corridors that alcohol and meat did.
Dairy use in feeds increased substantially around 1910 when it could be easily transported and
evenly mixed into other fodder materials in dried form. Farmers had often used homegrown milk
as a feed supplement on their own farms; now it became a farm input.
The result was a boom after 1900 in small feed manufacturing companies, and
transformation of existing ones. Cereal and oil producers diversified, entering the feed industry
as they commercialized processing byproducts. Promotion of “scientific feeding” was of mutual
interest for government, companies and agricultural science institutions. The issue of efficiency
was not “merely a ration that will produce the maximum live-weight,” nor purely feed cost: it
may be the most expensive per bag or ton but it should be “the cheapest per dozen eggs, per
gallon milk, per pound of meat produced” (Haecker 1903). The economic stakes were high; the
population of the country expanded by almost 30 million people between 1900 and 1920, a 40%
gain in a mere twenty years, manufacturing industries were rapidly expanding, and transport and
infrastructure projects were connecting geographically disparate areasmoving agricultural
products along new railways and roads (Hobbs and Stoops 2002; Cronon 2009).
Feeds of the 1910s-1920s increased protein content by adding buttermilk, fishmeal, or
bone meal to a bulk grain material. Ful-O-Pep Growing Mash, introduced in 1917 by Quaker
Oats (Figure 1), was marketed with a typical mix of economic and nutritional logic: “At every
bite the chicks get just the things they should have. Your profit doesn’t depend on what the feed
costs; it depends on what it costs to raise to raise your birds.” Entitled, “it’s the early bird that
gets the PROFIT,” the advertisement makes clear that the farmer buying this “balanced” ration
food will get to market first with bigger birds and eggs. “Just the things they should have,” ties
wasteful feeding practices explicitly to the question of profit.
Teaching farmers “scientific feeding” was a key outcome of the early manufactured feed
industry, a legacy that lasted long past the particular constituents of any one feedstuff. Purina
Mills, established in 1894, sent out a female “crew of experts…sent all over the country to teach
those desiring to know how to obtain greater results from poultry and cattle through scientific and
balance feeding(Anonymous 1923). Instruction was free; feed was not. Learning to farm by
accountingcalculating the net of inputs and outputs - was integral to agricultural modernization
(Fitzgerald 2003). By 1920, fortified feeds and “pre-mix” combinations became the norm.
According to The Golden Anniversary of Scientific Feedingpublished in 1947 to
celebrate fifty years of the animal feed industry - the production of more meat, milk and eggs was
a fortunate side effect of the main event: “development of a great industry…the feed processing
and manufacturing industry…which today represents a volume of more than two billion dollars a
year” (Wherry 1947, 1). It became possible to see the purpose of animals anew: as participants in
consumption. Growth potential of animals was the basis of the new industry. Animal growth
was thereby industrial growth. From this point of view, animals existed to grow the
manufactured feed industry.
Part 2: A “Practical Chemical Economy”: Vitamins, Amino Acids, and The Articulation of
Microbial and Animal Metabolism, 1920-1960
A practical chemical economy in the future depends quite as much upon our exploration
of the fundamentals of microbial metabolism as upon the exploration of petroleum
Buchanan, “Microbial Metabolism and Agriculture,” (1945, 344)
The story recounted above fits well with accounts of American food ways during this late
nineteenth and early twentieth century period, from the vertical integration of food processing
industries (Chandler 1977), to technical innovations in baking chemistry, meat eating and milk
drinking (Horowitz 2006). As Melanie DuPuis points out in her excellent history of fresh milk in
America, such changes are never just about the milk or the cow, but involve thoroughgoing
transformation of landscape and labor, from alfalfa fields to transport networks to experts and
salesmen (2002). The next stage in the development of medicated feed could be told in this vein
of social history of consumption and health: the rise of vitamins and the concept of deficiency
diseases, the moral nature of dietary advice, the advent of the medicated feed salesman, the
equation of meat with virility, the impact of war (Biltekoff 2013; Bentley 1998; Collingham
2013). Or, equally, one could follow the masterful lead of social historians of the corporation,
and show the annexation of plant and animal functions to twentieth century corporate bodies
(Boyd and Watts 2013; Roy 1999).
Yet I have insisted on highlighting the industrialization of metabolism, rather than that of
food, animals, or agriculture per se. Such a perspective provides a different analytic path,
focusing on metabolic processes in and between organisms as technological work objects in the
hunt for efficiency. How does this framing change what we see? Significantly, the pig or the
cow as a discrete entity recedes as biochemical interrelationship between organisms is
foregrounded for enhanced mechanization and production. Such foregrounding is consistent with
the view of many historical actors themselves. Realization that humans, animals, plants and
microbes were enmeshed in universal shared metabolic processes was transformative for
scientific and philosophical concepts of life, as well as for the eminently practical matter of
feeding an increasing number of agricultural animals. Discovery and manufacture of vitamins
drove a view of “man and animals as parasites of bacteria,” dependent on microbes, which in turn
drove practices of mass-culturing bacteria and fungi to produce essential nutrients at scale (Rahn
This section concerns the yoking of animal to microbial metabolism. Whereas in the
protein years, the main players in the animal feed industry were grain producers or food
manufacturers channeling extracts from whole animals and plants into animal protein production,
fine chemical companies increasingly pushed upstream, making vitamin preparations and other
single-molecule feed supplements as raw concentrates sold onward to feed distributors, who then
combined these pre-mixes with bulk feedstuffs. At the same time in the same feed bags
medicinal substances increased in importance, as agriculture intensified and animals were kept in
closer quarters in larger numbers, such that “the feed mixer has had to assume the role of
pharmacist and then incidentally, ventured into what was presumed to be the field of veterinary
medicine” (Welch and Martí-Ibáñez 1956, 9). I will discuss growth promoters shortly; first I
focus on the rescaling and rearrangement of metabolic relations between organisms by tracing the
emergence of vitamin logics, and a corresponding industrial microbiology that reshaped animal
life between 1920 and 1960.
Vitamins and Microbes
To illustrate how microbial and animal metabolisms move into new scales of distribution
and modes of connection in the twentieth century, I trace out two streams of activity: vitamin
research and industrial microbiology. These initially separate endeavors were merged in
technologies of microbial fermentation in the 1920s, by the 1950s becoming a scene in which
vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids were produced at the scale of tons, and ubiquitously
constitutive of animal feeds.
Vitamins emerged as discrete conceptual and technical objects in the early twentieth
century from medical research in humans, bacterial nutrition studies, and agricultural science.
The word vitamine was coined in 1911, and the corresponding concept of the ‘deficiency disease’
was proposed for conditions such as beri-beri or scurvy caused by nutritional lack rather than
infection (Funk 1912). As “efficient agents” capable of cures, vitamins were likened to
hormones. Both appeared to investigators as “drug-like and communicative substances,”
biological chemicals with potency to regulate bodies (Schwerin, Stoff, and Wahrig 2013, 13).
Vitamins emerged from and profoundly changed attitudes to the workings of intermediary
metabolism, as entirely different metabolic objects than the intensively researched proteins, fats
and carbohydrates.
The concept of the “biochemical lesion” of vitamin deficiency illustrates how vitamins
appeared to researchers as akin to watch jewels, crucial to the larger mechanism (Lipmann 1969).
In pigeons used to model beriberi, debilitating muscle spasms arose after dietary transition to
polished rice, as thiamin (vitamin B1) was lost with the brown rice husk. Deficiency manifested as
opisthotonous - muscle spasms bending the bird’s neck and head completely backwards against
the body. This condition could be dramatically reversed in half an hour by an injection of
thiamin. British biochemist Rudolph Peters showed in the 1930s that pyruvate - a metabolic
intermediary normally converted to acetate and carbon dioxide built up in brain tissues of these
birds (Meiklejohn, Passmore, and Peters 1932). This blockage could be “cured” in pigeon brain
slices by adding thiamin, one of the “early indications that vitamins had a metabolic function”
(Lipmann 1969, 3). The speed and totality of the cure indicated “it must be a biochemical
change rather than one which has gone as far as structural alterations,” and Peters argued it was
time for “medicine to transfer attention in pathology to the initial biochemical changes rather than
to the final microscopic picture” (Peters 1952, 143). Disease shifted from visible lesions to
invisible but biochemically measurable and chemically malleable changes
Thiamin deficiency effects manifested throughout the body. “In vain have we
endeavored to find the specific effect of a deficiency of the substance and yet it is credited with
almost panacean properties. The reason is, we believe, that carbohydrate metabolism cannot go
forward in any living cell without thiamin” (Williams 1938, 563 emphasis in original). Despite
being present in tissues in amounts below one part per million, vitamins were systemically
essential. In other words, it was not just that vitamins regulated “the body” in some hand-waving
manner observed in animal feeding trials. Rather, vitamins were necessary passage points for
crucial segments of metabolic sequences in every cell in every body. As such, they were fine
tools of biochemical dissection of the intricacies of intermediary metabolism. The rapidity and
specificity of fixing a biochemical lesion showed the vitamin to be a powerful lever for reaching
into metabolism and tuning it.
Vitamin function across human, animal, plant and microbial cells was universal enough
that one could observe common deficiency defects across a huge diversity of life forms:
microbes, rats, pigeons, sick people. Investigators of intermediary metabolism increasingly
turned to microbes in the 1920s in research on vitamins. Bacteria could be cultured in controlled
media, and responded unequivocally when specific metabolic pathway elements were added or
subtracted - by growing or not. Investigators realized that microbes and animal cells often share
nutritional requirements, particularly pathogens. Sensitivity to the presence of particular
substrates was used to find new vitamins or to quantify the presence of known ones, such as
bacterial assays for riboflavin (Snell and Strong 1939).
At the same time, microbes were shown to be incredible chemical producers in their own
right. The attempt to dissect intermediary metabolism interior to cells and organisms, led to a
realization of profound metabolic interdependencies between microbes and animals. A bacterial
culture in growth phase generates many elements of cellular life such as nucleic acids and lipids,
and by-products of energy metabolism, such as ethanol, acetone, citric acid, lysine -- or vitamins,
thereby providing essential nutrients for animals. Microbes could be used to dissect metabolism’s
inner workings and, once the necessary substances were thereby identified, to produce
metabolic entities vital to humans and animals.
Industrial Microbiology: Scaling Up
Vitamin production became a matter of scale via industrial microbiology. Initially,
microbes were seen as “work-machines” analogous to the animal converter, also turning cheap
materials into valuable substances such as acetone or alcohol (Bud 1994). However, elaboration
of the interdependencies of intermediary metabolism soon moved them into series, rather than
parallel, with one process feeding into another. At the same time, the isolation, structural analysis,
and chemical synthesis of vitamins proceeded apace and sometimes part of the production
sequence was microbial and the rest synthetic, as with manufacturing of vitamin C. Beginning in
the 1920s chemical, alcohol, and pharmaceutical manufacturers came onto the scene where food
and oil processors had dominated.
The story of the Commercial Solvents Corporation is representative of the course charted
by others. Founded in 1917 by the Allied War Board for microbial production of acetone to serve
explosives manufacture, the company’s initial task was to industrialize the fermentation process
discovered by Chaim Weizmann for the war effort. Taken over by private owners after 1919,
CSC’s plants in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Peoria, Illinois, converted Midwest grain supplies into
a wide range of fermentation products, including alcohol. A popular history of CSC published in
1936, aptly named One Thing Leads to Another, recounts stepwise moves from explosives
manufacture to animal nutrition, including the acquisition of molasses distributors and spin-off of
a subsidiary Molasses Products Corporation in 1933, ensuring supply of molasses as a
fermentation base (Kelly 1936).
Molasses provided a nutrient medium for microbial production of riboflavin (vitamin B2),
first marketed in 1936. Human riboflavin consumption increased with the introduction of flour
fortification in the 1940s, but it was initially sold for animal feed. This fermentation
infrastructure was then turned to penicillin production by 1944. CSC diversified into other
agricultural products such as nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer in 1946, and resorcyclic acid
lactones (estrogenic chemicals derived from fungi) in 1962. Throughout the twentieth century,
using both high-pressure synthetic chemistry and fermentation, CSC made substances for animal
nutrition alongside pharmaceuticals, plastics, and automobile tires, and all manner of other
chemicals, from anti-freeze to whisky.
Pfizer tracked a similar course. Established in 1849, the company initially made
compounds with direct extraction processes from whole flowers and fruits such as a plant-derived
anti-worm drug, and citric acid from lemons. Shortage of lemons during World War I pushed the
company to turn to harvesting citric acid from a mold, Aspergillus niger, with large-scale
fermentation-based production transitioning the company from a small concern into a
pharmaceutical giant. Aspergillus was grown on a sucrose solution, initially in long shallow trays
(for air exposure). By 1929, 5000 tons of citric acid valued at 4.5 million dollars was being
produced in the United States, as soft drinks and canning drove a growing market (Bud 2011). In
1929 the company developed a stirred-tank fermentation technology facilitating larger volumes of
mold growth under aerated conditions. This brought Pfizer into the vitamin market, first for
vitamin C, then B2 in 1938 and B12 after the war. The stirred-tank fermenter - a “rarely
acknowledged pillar of the modern age” was essential to the establishment of penicillin
production during World War II (Bud 2011, 325; Ginsburg 2008).
Intensification of animal agriculture was pursued via many avenues, including innovation
in breeding, transportation and marketing (Boyd 2001). Yet it was through microbial
biochemistry that key bottlenecks to expansion were overcome, the most significant of which was
the isolation of vitamin B12. Overcoming vitamin and macronutrient deficiencies allowed for
larger animals and better survival rates, but such animals ate more food. Increasing numbers in
animal husbandry, particularly in poultry, produced impossible demand for the very feed
components farmers had been taught to rely on. Shortages of milk powder were remedied by
using riboflavin, starting in the mid-1930s. Shortages of fishmeal and tankage were exacerbated
by the onset of World War II. Efforts to fill the gap with plant proteins such as soybean and
cottonseed meal failed: they lacked amino acids such as methionine and lysine, as well as an
“animal protein factor” “an unidentified principle so named because of its presence in animal
tissues such as liver and muscle” (Jukes 1972, 526). Paradoxically, it was difficult to grow
animals because there wasn’t enough animal matter to feed them with.
Human medicine and bacterial nutrition research converged simultaneously on the animal
protein factor question. Treatment of pernicious anemia in humans with liver extract pioneered in
the 1920s provided a partial but imprecise fix for this debilitating condition, and a long pursuit of
the “pernicious anemia factor” ensued. Quite separately, work on the nutritional needs of
industrially important microbes showed that Lactobacillus lactis Dornier (LLD), important in the
dairy industry in making sour cream and buttermilk, was also dependent on liver extract, for
unknown reasons. Mary Shorb, a microbiologist hired by the Dairy Board during World War II
worked with LLD, improving production of dairy food commodities. On being displaced from
her position by a returning veteran in 1946, she joined the Poultry Science Department of the
University of Maryland, and was funded by a $400 grant from Merck to develop LLD as a
bioassay for the active component of liver extract (Ahrens 1993). The bacteria indicated the
presence of the ‘factor’ by living or dying, and helped pick the mysterious thing out of the
complexity of biological fluids. It was isolated and crystallized in 1948, and named vitamin B12
(Shorb 1948).
Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that some bacteria produce rather than require B12.
Thus an enormous bottleneck to growth was overcome. By 1951, “feed manufacturers fortified
15 million tons of feed with 200 pounds of B12 additive. These 200 pounds replaced all of the
natural B12 normally contained in approximately 1 billion pounds of meat and fish by-products”
(Summons 1968, 311). On the strength of B12 production, Merck became the largest producer of
vitamins in the United States by World War II, second only to Hoffman-LaRoche worldwide
(Chandler 2009. 179). It was an intensely competitive scene with high economic stakes; Pfizer,
the Chemical Solvents Corporation, Glaxo, and American Cyanamid, and many other smaller
companies sent vitamins and minerals along the conduits established by the earlier manufactured
feed industry centered on protein. By 1950 there were 3000 manufacturers of commercial feed in
the United States, not counting middle-man operations combining commercial premixes with
local grain or fodder material (Hillery 1952). An advertisement from Hoffman-La Roche
proclaims “Vitamins By the Tons,” trains and planes fanning out from their factory across the
landscape (Figure 2). It was in this way that microbial capabilities for turning grains or molasses
into vitamins were plugged into animal processes at an unprecedented scale.
Vitamins led the way but the excitement over microbial metabolism as a chemical factory
for animal inputs extended much further. Fungal amylases (or “fungal spit” as I like to think of
it) were used for the pre-digestion of rough fodders. The production of amino acids was
revolutionized using microbial cultures, replacing difficult extraction processes from grains, hair
and feathers with hydrochloric acid. Amino acids such as lysine were important supplements to
corn-based diets, as corn has little of this essential amino acid, and animals must acquire it from
their food, having no metabolic capacity of their own to make it. Being able to add isolated
lysine rather than some expensive bulk material that contained a mix of amino acids would
have made Henry Armsby proud, with its high degree of targeted efficiency.
In the same decade, Dow Chemical cultivated a flourishing market in urea supplements
for cattle feed, a synthetic nitrogen product based made with ammonia that was converted into
protein by the microbes inhabiting the cow rumen. Company publications show a growth in sales
from 500,000 tons of urea-made feeds in 1946 to 4,500,000 tons in 1956 (Du Pont 1958). After
World War II, techniques for cracking petroleum to make the amino acid methionine relieved
another bottleneck to growth (Willke 2014). This amino acid was needed in chickens fed on corn
or soy, because of the high relative proportion of methionine to other amino acids employed in
the growth of feathers and the low availability of this amino acid in these dietary sources.
Synthetic methionine was originally developed for humans, to treat post-War hunger edema
resulting from chronic protein deprivation, but as this problem faded in acuity, the product found
a much larger market in the targeted supplementation of animal feed, thus effectively opening out
a direct channel of material flow from petrochemicals to animals. In sum, for animal feed, the
“practical chemical economy” meant new forms and scales of biochemical transaction between
microbes and animals, between plants and microbes, and between petroleum and animals.
Part 3: “Meat in a Hurry”: The Growth Promoter
Throughout the long history of scientific feeding, the calculation of feed efficiency was
key. How much food (at what cost) did it take to raise how much animal matter (at what price)?
At World War II’s end, anxieties about food and labor costs sharpened. The Truman
administration was troubled by public dismay over meat shortages and threats of a producer’s
strike just prior to the 1946 elections. Geopolitical considerations reared as agriculture became
caught up in Cold War politics: “farm conventions and journals began delivering the messages
that Soviet spending on industrialization could outpace Americans’, and that farmers needed to be
vigilant of the possibility of enemies striking the nation’s food supplies through bioterrorism”; the
American role at home and in the world included providing more meat as part of “Freedom from
want(Finlay 2004, 242).
This scene is captured by “Meat in a Hurry,” on the front page of the Wall Street Journal
in 1952. “Farm-hand labor grows more costly,” columnist Victor Hillery exclaimed, “And corn
that sold for less than 50 cents a bushel just before World War II now brings $2.00. What’s
needed, say the animal-making wizards, are techniques to produce a given amount of animal with
less grain and fewer hours of work” (1952, 1). Vitamins and amino acids allowed the
intensification of production, with larger animals or more milk yield, but did not fundamentally
change the ratio of food and labor input to product output. They also produced new problems in
their own right. For example, vitamin D supplementation allowed year-round indoor growth of
chickens, which triggered outbreaks of contagious intestinal parasites called coccidiosis. In the
words of one du Pont representative, this meant that, “economic considerations have put feeding
and parasite control on the same production team” (Boughton 1956, 63).
Sulfonamides were the first drugs to demonstrate the ability to “literally feed away
disease,” but another drug developed to address the cocciodosis problem became the first
medicated feed to significantly change the food to growth ratio, while also accelerating the
animal life cycle (Welch and Martí-Ibáñez 1956, 190). Arsenic-based medications proved to be
effective against the coccidian protozoa - and to accelerate maturity. Over and above the effects
of suppressing infection, even disease-free pullets fed with the medication reached earlier
physical and sexual maturity, more of them survived to adulthood, food was converted to eggs
and meat more efficiently, and hatchability and fertility seemed unaffected (Morehouse 1946).
Significantly, careful analysis showed that arsenicals, “when added to a commercial-type ration at
a level of 0.01 per cent stimulated early growth and improved feed efficiency of chicks reared in
batteries or floor pens, but not in birds raised on grass range” (Anonymous 1956, 207). Dr.
Salisbury’s arsenic-based drugs for chickens were approved by the FDA in 1944 for the treatment
of cocciodosis, but also for weight gain, feed efficiency, and “improved pigmentation.” This last
category referred to the fact that the drug made the meat pinker, and thus more appealing to the
Unlike vitamins and trace minerals, which corrected nutritional deficiencies, arsenicals
pointed toward metabolic efficiencies (Landecker 2020). They accelerated life and therefore
production. Treated pullets started laying 15 days earlier than untreated birds, regardless of
infection; treated birds reached market weight earlier. Where the vitaminists of the interwar era
had beenguided by an essentially static model of health and growth,” seeking to “itemize the
ingredients that totaled up to the normal, proper diet,post-war medicatedmodern feeding” was
by contrast not concerned with natural limits, but sought interaction between different ration
components and animal metabolism for overcoming limits (Marcus 1993, 68). The message from
both academic and industry quarters was that feed did not have to be, and in fact could no longer
be, just food: “modern feeding must take into account not only the balance of nutrients suitable
for the ideal situation but anything and everything that in one way or another enhances feed
efficiency under practical conditions. A growth promoter need not be an essential metabolite. It
may, for example, speed up or slow down advantageously a critical metabolic process”
(Boughton 1956, 61). It is this ability to speed and slow, augment and suppress within the
metabolic map of interlinked enzymatic reactions that characterizes the post-war growth
The discovery of the growth-promoting effects of penicillin or arsenicals is often depicted
as a fortuitous accident. Yet this was more than fortune favoring the prepared mind. The
conventions for feeding and profit ratio experiments were firmly in place, with every eye trained
on feed efficiency parameters. These substances were understood in light of a decades-long
legacy of capitalizing processing wastes by feeding them onward into animal production systems
(Landecker 2019b). Animals, as noted above, had become consumers in their own right.
Microbial metabolism was already firmly harnessed at scale to animal metabolism. Metabolites or
medications could be immediately tested on model organisms of nutrition science, and knowledge
circulated within a robust social and economic network between government, academic, and
industry in which companies funded experimental programs or provided promising substances for
testing. Agricultural scientists updated feed manufacturers on new supplements or medications
through personal networks, written missives, and presentations at industry meetings; individuals
moved from posts in industry to academia, or government regulatory or research bureaus, and
back (Marcus 1993). In other words, growth promoters did not make medicated feed possible but
rather the reverse: the practices and logics of medicated feed were the conditions under which the
“new” growth promoters emerged. Arsenicals were first; then antibiotics and hormones moved
almost instantly from laboratory discovery to ubiquitously used staple of animal husbandry.
The growth promoting characteristics of antibiotics were noticed in the late 1940s, at
American Cyanamid’s Lederle Laboratories. Vat waste from aureomycin production was fed to
chicks, with the aim of using waste as a source for the recently discovered vitamin B12. However,
results outstripped those using B12 extracted directly from liver, indicating something else was at
play, and growth effects were traced to antibiotics leftover from the production process. For
verification, American Cyanamid sent samples of aureomycin fermentation wastes to land grant
colleges and experimental science station scientists to test on pigs, without informing the
contracted researchers that they were testing for growth promoting effects of antibiotics (Finlay
2004). Growth promotion with antibiotics was immediately compared to arsenic-based
medications and declared superior; but additive effects could be seen when using both; the latter
increased feed efficiency, while the former pushed weight gains higher (Wallace et. al. 1950). In
a few short years antibiotic-supplemented feeds dominated the market (Kirchhelle 2018).
These agricultural scientists and feed manufacturers were working on metabolism, not
“food.” Certainly they were attempting to make animal feed more nutritious or more disease-
preventing by adding things to it, but the measure of that success, and their means of assessing
progress toward it, were the parameters and quantification of feed efficiency. An assessment of
medicated feed written in 1960 notes that “prior to the 1950s, the pounds of feed necessary to
produce a given quantity of livestock had changed very little. Nutritionists had made
improvements in meat output per animal and in rapidity of animal growth, but these higher-
producing animals always ate more(Summons 1968, 310, emphasis added). Now higher-
producing animals that ate less and grew faster seemed possible. A 1952 photograph in Fortune
Magazine beside “Antibiotics in the Barnyard” depicts feed efficiency. The fat pig is in a pen
stacked with 7 feed bags. The thin pig next door is in a pen stacked with 8.5 bags (Figure 3). The
antibiotic supplement enabled the production of larger pigs using less feed. Arsenicals had
indicated the way and antibiotics followed.
It is also in this context that the first use of hormones as growth promoters occurs. Clover
feed containing phytoestrogens had marked effect on ruminants, and intensive endocrinological
research with chickens had made it clear that the transition to laying in hens involved a
hormonally-triggered profound shift in lipid metabolism; the thinking was that this could be
artificially accelerated in order to shorten maturation and extend the laying period of the mature
hen (Lorenz, Chaikoff, and Entenman 1938). Such manipulations became economically
thinkable only when the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) became available in 1938,
because it was cheap and abundant, unlike the other estrogenic compounds or “pregnant mare
urine” used in earlier lipid metabolism manipulation (Lorenz 1954). It was not enough to
demonstrate effects in experiments; the right combination of chemistry, economy and
infrastructure had to be in place to bring a substance into wide use.
Inspired by observations of the effects of clover phytoestrogen, Wise Burroughs of Iowa
State University and his colleagues showed in 1954 that weight gains of up to 35% could be
attained in feedlot cattle given DES-supplemented feed, with up to a 20% reduction in feed cost.
As with low-dose antibiotics, this was as much empirical tinkering in the terrain of feed
efficiency as some kind of highly precise understanding of how DES affected growth at a
molecular level. But it is clear that targeting metabolism was the framework for pursuing and
understanding the effects of DES: “The fact that feed consumption is slightly increased but the
economy of gain is greatly increased would point to the fact that protein anabolic processes are
accelerated” (Clegg and Cole 1954, 109).
Burroughs, like other scientists of his generation, “saw no disjunction between hormonal
and nutritive research…the endocrine and nutritive systems were plastic, subject to scientific
manipulation to produce particularistic ends” (Marcus 1993, 79). Indeed, hormones seemed
another variation on the drivers of particular metabolic processes, to be layered and combined
with other agents preventing disease and accelerating enzymatic conversions while suppressing
time-consuming maturation processes. Antibiotics and DES were cheap and plentiful. The
infrastructure for distributing small quantities of medication through large quantities of animal
feed was in place, as were the marketing and distribution systems of feed manufacturing firms.
When such substances were added to the feedbag, they were not first of a kind. They joined the
mix with vitamins, trace metals such as manganese and copper, growth promoting medications
such as arsenicals, nitrogen providers such as urea, concentrations of particular essential amino
acids, and sweetening or odorant agents meant to induce animals to eat, such as magnesium oxide
or butyric acid.
On the regulatory front, the surge in distribution of medications through animal feed
spurred the FDA to open a veterinary medical branch in 1953overseen by former or future feed
manufacturing executives. In 1956, a symposium on medicated opened with the comment that
just one year after its introduction for use in cows, DES was now being used in half of the feedlot
cattle in the United States, and three-quarters of all manufactured feeds contained antibiotics; the
“feed manufacturers have, with reluctance, become drug manufacturers” (Welch and Martí-
Ibáñez 1956, 1). Eight years later when the annual Feed Additive Compendium listed additives
found in medicated feed and combinations found in various commercial feed products, entries ran
to the thousands (Animal Health Institute 1964). While antibiotics and hormones feature
prominently, enzymes, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids, anti-fungal
medications, carotenoids, plant oils used as aromatics, and other less-known substances also
crowd the pages. So many additives were used to increase palatability of feed to animals that the
Feed Additive Compendium had a special section for them, and “stomachic appetizer” was a
category of drug action. An advertisement from Dow Chemical aimed at feed manufacturers
interleaved among the lists of food additives shows a variety of bags and barrels, the label
underneath the offerings, “Peep. Cackle. Oink. Moo.” The ad’s text continues: “If it makes
sounds like any of these, we have the feed additive to keep it healthy and profitable” (Figure 4).
Conclusion: The Philosophy of the Butcher
In 1934, observing an unbridled enthusiasm for vitamins amongst pediatricians, the
nutrition scientist Clive McCay and his colleague Mary Crowell criticized what they saw as an
unthinking embrace of accelerated growth:
To-day research has tended to narrow into a channel of primary interest in the young,
growing animal... After it becomes an adult it is no longer an “apple of the eye” of the
nutritionist, but primarily a carcass that provides dissecting material for the pathologist.
The nutrition student is too busy pouring vitamins, minerals, and proteins into the young
and growing to be much concerned with the grown (McCay and Crowell 1934, 05).
Coming as it does from an observer of the 1930s scene, this rather anguished critique helps us
understand the dominance of growth as both the object and the aim of vitamin science. Indeed,
the relationship that McCay was critiquing in which the growth of meat animals became the
model for human children without accounting for long term consequences was seen by others as
unproblematic, even a point of pride. “Chicks and Children,” proclaimed a typical advertisement
from one vitamin concentrate supplier, “need the same Vitamin D.” It was, McCay wrote, a
philosophy of the butcher that was leaving aside the question of the relationship between growth
in youth, health in adulthood, and overall longevity, in both animals and humans:
The healthy adult is a matter of little interest, even to himself, and the sick one usually
rates as a pest. This philosophy belongs properly to the butcher. Every producer of meat
animals wants to rear them rapidly because it is economical. These animals are killed as
soon as they mature. What agricultural expert can tell the effect of the feeding during the
growth period upon the milk-producing capacity of a cow during her entire life? What
chicken specialist can tell the effect of the rate of growth of the chicken upon the egg
production of the laying hen? Who can tell you the effect of the rate of growth of a child
upon its susceptibility to disease during adult life? Who can give assurance that the child
that matures rapidly will not die after a short life span? (1934, 405).
The lens of rapid growth made little room for other kinds of questions, for other experimental
designs that might have explored possible adverse effects of accelerated growth, non-growth
related effects of vitamin use, or the environmental or ecological effects of increasing the relative
presence of vitamins in the world through mass production and distribution. All of the
knowledge being produced was about growth and mechanisms enabling growth effects. McCay’s
own work on calorie restriction and longevity lay fallow for decades before being picked up again
with the emergence of theories of developmental origins of health and disease and concerns about
rising rates adult chronic disease related to over-nutrition (Park 2010).
This essay has set the stage for asking questions occluded by a profusion of knowledge
framed only by growth. It is one thing to argue that metabolism has been industrialized; it is
another to then begin to trace out the consequences of the biochemical remapping of conversion,
scale and time that has occurred with the dominance of medicated feed in animal husbandry. It is
time to again pose McCay’s question: Who can tell the legacies of childhoods fed on ideologies
of maximum growth? What are the consequences of funneling arsenic into the American
landscape through plants and animals, for decades? What are the metabolic legacies of producing
a disproportionate amount of certain amino acids by using microbial fermentation or tapping into
petroleum as a dietary input? What are the consequences of building an enormous extra-digestive
apparatus of fungal enzymes, mechanical grinding, and vitamin provision that encompasses our
bodies and our animals’ bodies?
While we may learn a great deal from focusing on any one of these substances and its
particular legacies for human health the environment, foodways, or the economy, there is also an
important place for seeing the big picture in which chickens, milk, antibiotic resistance, growth
hormones, or consumers are set. I opened this essay by drawing on Tiago Saraiva’s observation
that the technoscientific practices of agriculture are not things that are shaped by context so much
as world-making measures in their own right: here we see that the modernity constituted by
feeding practices was a biochemical one, in which matter moves differently at different scales
and speeds, and through different metabolic relations than those that preceded metabolic
industrialization. The world made thus is not confined to the animal body, nor to the eater of the
animal body, but is the biochemical milieu for contemporary life.
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Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2015. The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar
Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Figure 1: Ful-O-Pep Growing Mash
Figure 2: Vitamins by the Tons
Figure 3: Antibiotics in the Barnyard
Figure 4: Peep. Cackle. Oink. Moo.
Marx himself did not use the term metabolism. He drew on his readings of nineteenth century agricultural
and animal chemistry, in particular those of Justus von Liebig and Jakob Moleschott, in using the German
word Stoffwechsel. Stoffwechsel refers more narrowly to chemical process of nitrogen turnover in muscular
tissues than the later term metabolism, which comes to encompass many more substances, tissues,
organisms and processes. It is only after the end of the nineteenth century and a synthesis of input-output
physiology, cell theory, and fermentation studies (enzymology) occurs in the rise of a new discipline of
biochemistry that Stoffwechsel is typically translated into English as metabolism (Landecker 2016). The
word metabolism does not occur in English translations of Marx until the mid-twentieth century. This may
seem a pedantic point, but Marx could not have had the broader biochemical understanding of metabolism
in mind that contemporary authors attach to the term and tend to read back into his work.
Armbsy had qualified in chemistry in the first graduating class of the Worcester County Free Institute of
Industrial Science in 1871 (which subsequently became the Worcester Institute of Technology), and
sojourned to Germany as part of his graduate training in chemistry at Yale, spending a year at the Möckern
Agricultural Experiment Station where he was deeply inspired by feeding experiments that showed high-
nitrogen “power feeds” such as rapeseed oil cake could increase milk production and thereby intensify farm
output through the manipulation of animal diets (Matz 2015).
The story of manufacturing waste is also to a certain extent the story of the American corporate form. For
an in-depth consideration of the story of food processing waste in relation to animal feed, please see “A
Metabolic History of Manufacturing Waste: Food Commodities and Their Outsides” (Landecker 2019b).
I discuss this story in greater length and in relation to tissue culture practices in “It Is What It Eats:
Chemically Defined Media and the History of Surrounds” (Landecker 2016).
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Since their advent during the 1930s, antibiotics have not only had a dramatic impact on human medicine, but also on food production. On farms, whaling and fishing fleets as well as in processing plants and aquaculture operations, antibiotics were used to treat and prevent disease, increase feed conversion, and preserve food. Their rapid diffusion into nearly all areas of food production and processing was initially viewed as a story of progress on both sides of the Iron Curtain. However, from the mid-1950s onwards, agricultural antibiotic use also triggered increasing conflicts about drug residues and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Significantly, antibiotic concerns did not develop evenly but instead gave rise to an international patchwork of different regulatory approaches. During a time of growing concerns about AMR and a post-antibiotic age, this article reconstructs the origins, global proliferation, and international regulation of agricultural antibiotics. It argues that policymakers need to remember the long history of regulatory failures that has resulted in current antibiotic infrastructures. For effective international stewardship to develop, it is necessary to address the economic dependencies, deep-rooted notions of development, and fragmented cultural understandings of risk, which all contribute to drive global antibiotic consumption and AMR.
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