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The Stomach-Turning Rise and Fall of Liver

During the Great Depression and World War II, the nutrient-rich organ meat was a staple of the American diet. The problem was, it left a literal bad taste in everyone’s mouth

No expression of perceived umbrage more effectively conveys the feelings behind the perceived slight of being overlooked than the famous rhetorical question: “What am I, chopped liver?”

Inherent in the question and suggested answer is the belief that liver — chopped or otherwise — is of inferior value to most other items of a similar purpose that one might offer in its place. Monetarily speaking, this is almost certainly correct. Beef liver, the most frequently consumed of all animal livers in the U.S., has historically been less expensive at the market than virtually all other meats. Nutritionally speaking, this becomes difficult to reconcile, as beef liver contains a vast number of vitamins and minerals in higher concentrations than virtually any other source of animal nutrition. In fact, liver is so nutrient dense that it’s conceivable that its regular consumption in small doses would eliminate the need for many people to ingest a daily multivitamin.

Despite the rapid advancements in nutrition science over the last century, that acquisition of knowledge has been simultaneous with the disappearance of liver from dinner menus across the Western world. As just one example, a 2014 survey comparing changes in the rate of liver consumption in the U.K. found that the average per-person consumption of liver dipped from 50 grams per week in 1974 to only five grams per week in 2014, leaving many people scratching their heads in amazement that some folks were still eating five grams of liver meat every week.

But why did we stop eating liver, and where has that liver disappeared to?

What has American consumption of liver looked like for the past 100 years?

At the onset of the 20th century, liver’s reputation suffered more from the social stigma attached to it as much as it may have suffered from its often sour, mineral-heavy flavor. In an article printed in June 1927, Dr. William Brady of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle did his best to encourage his readers to give liver a chance to become a regular mealtime companion. As Brady sang liver’s nutritional praises and commented on a recent rise in its popularity, he simultaneously provided a snapshot as to attitudes toward liver during that generation and the one that preceded it.

“Many of us can remember when beef liver was so worthless that the butcher shops gave it away; only poor folk were willing to eat it, frequently in lieu of fresh meat,” reflected Brady. “Now beef liver costs 25 or 30 cents a pound and is worth as much as any other kind of meat one can eat.”

He went on to compare beef liver favorably with a porterhouse steak, and declared liver to be the unquestioned winner of that comparison on the basis of its lower caloric value and far higher vitamin and mineral content.

That sounds promising. So what happened?

During the Great Depression, calf liver gained a reputation as a delicacy, but beef liver and pig liver declined in value, and once again gained an association with impoverished living. Moreover, liver appears to have been a food item that Americans were desperately in search of an excuse not to eat if it could be helped. As evidence of this, Kellogg’s 1932 advertising campaign for All-Bran cereal was a full-fledged attack on liver’s status as a required food source. An All-Bran ad spoke of the cereal’s abundance of vitamin B before firing a broadside volley at liver: “Kellogg’s All-Bran supplies twice as much blood-building iron as an equal amount of liver.”

It’s worth noting that the selling point of liver has rarely been its flavor, so special campaigns have often been required to motivate consumers to set aside their desire for food that actually tastes pleasant in favor of comestible items that they’d rather feed to their household pets (and which their pets would gladly consume). As a clear example of this, consumption of liver was promoted as patriotic behavior during the food-rationing period of the World War II era, and newspapers were rife with articles encouraging homemakers to add liver to their shopping carts.

Case in point: The Santa Cruz Sentinel article “Bonus Meats on the Menu” from January 1943. “There’s no need of too much worry about making your meat allowance stretch when there are all those delicious bonus meats that can be had (at least as of this writing),” it read. “I speak of sundry meats such as liver, heart, kidney, pigs feet and all those extras that don’t come in on the meat quota.”

Americans did their duty during the war, which resulted in a skyrocketing price for liver, and sent other industries — including the pet food industry — looking for other ways to meet the needs that inexpensive liver had once filled. An article in the Herald Press from 1940 described how high liver prices owed to increased human consumption had been damaging to the diets of fish, since even the fish-food industry had grown to become dependent on an overabundance of inexpensive liver. 

However, interest in liver began to decline yet again once the war reached its conclusion, and this was accelerated by the rise of multivitamins and the advertised infusion of those vitamins with liver concentrate. If the most persuasive argument for the consumption of liver had been its vitamin and mineral content, multivitamins removed that argument from the table, repackaged it and returned it to the tabletop in either capsule or tablet form.

What happened to liver from there?

By the mid-1970s, the value of liver had plummeted to the point of bottoming out. The New York Times interviewed Harvey Potkin of Kosher King Meat Products, who complained that edible fat — with zero nutrient value and priced at 16 cents a pound — was outselling nutritious liver that was priced only slightly higher at 18 cents a pound. “The nature of people being what they are, even though they like a good bargain, they’re not going to eat something that doesn’t agree with their taste,” he explained. “I’m the biggest distributor of kosher liver in the country. My kids are 13, 10 and 5. You put a piece of liver on the table, they run out of the house.”

America’s growing distaste for liver wasn’t the only thing causing liver sales to trend downward during that era. Even authentic connoisseurs were disheartened by the Calf Liver Scandal of 1978. Syndicated San Francisco Chronicle writer and meat specialist Merle Ellis dedicated one of his columns to exposing how frequently ordinary beef liver was labeled as calf liver at grocery stores, enabling supermarkets to simultaneously boost liver sales and charge higher prices for their liver by offering their shoppers more of the good stuff.

In the following decade, liver came under fire precisely due to its nutrient density. Specifically, its hefty dose of vitamin A — at more than 500 percent of an average person’s daily value per serving — raised questions about whether or not liver consumption could qualify as a method for delivering potentially toxic quantities of the vitamin to its ingesters. 

What is happening to all those livers nowadays?

About 45 percent of the animal livers generated in the U.S. are finding their way into pet food. Both dog and cat food — particularly the wet versions — contain sizable percentages of liver meat. These percentages are frequently masked by the use of the term “meat by-products” on ingredient labels, which is a catch-all term that also includes meat from the lungs, brain, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines of slaughtered animals.

Aside from animal consumption, a massive quantity of American animal liver is shipped overseas alongside other organ meats to countries that have a greater appreciation for it, and where liver is often considered a delicacy even when consumed raw. To that end, throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, demand for American livers has skyrocketed.

Maybe one day then — if not in the U.S., at least in a good portion of the rest of the world — when the question, “What am I, chopped liver?” gets asked, the stock response will be, “Yes, and I love you for it.”