Here in America, we eat meat. A lot of it. In 2011, the average U.S. citizen consumed 54.9 pounds of beef, but maybe even more impressive than that number is the distinction between where beef is produced and where it ends up. Because although the idea of eating locally sourced meat is gaining traction, millions of pounds of beef are shipped all over the country, meaning our meat is a lot more itinerant than we might like.
The discrepancy between local production and far-flung consumption is at the heart of Sarah Hallacher's Beef Stakes, in which the artist sculpts clay into U.S.-state-shaped steaks, each one a rather convincing rendering of raw meat. The more beef a state produces, the greater the size of the steak, each of which is wrapped and labeled like a supermarket steak. Designed using the programming tool Processing, the labels juxtapose the amount of beef produced per state with the cost (per pound and total) to produce said beef. It also includes how much beef each citizen would have to consume, based on production, if said beef weren’t being exported to other parts of the country (and beyond).
"The name is meant to probe what’s at stake with regard to production, consumption, and waste," says Hallacher. "My goal was to discover inconsistencies in production versus consumption at a local level. In the states I worked with, more beef is produced than the population of that state could consume. This means the American beef industry is dependent on its product traveling around the country and beyond, creating an environmentally and financially costly system behind eating beef." Nebraska, for instance, produces 70 times the beef its population consumes.
The project fulfilled an assignment in Hallacher’s Data Representation class taught by Jer Thorp at New York University’s ITP graduate arts program. Mining data from Beef USA and Cornell’s library of USDA data (pdf) and working at a brisk pace (about two weeks from conception to completion), Hallacher researched the U.S. states that produce the most beef and settled on the top four (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas) for this project. After finishing her thesis, she’d like to refine and expand the project to include all 50 states and dive into what she describes as a "sea of data" about the industry: "how much beef America imports from and exports to countries around the world, amount of beef consumed state-to-state, environmental implications of the beef production industry."
For now Hallacher, who describes her relationship with meat as complicated, has created a visceral reminder of the distance between our food’s origin and its places of consumption. So maybe the best answer to the question of "Where’s the beef?" is "On the road."