When World War II Rationing Created a Black Market for Meat

Beef was in short supply during World War II.
Beef was in short supply during World War II. / Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Plenty of consumer products have been trafficked on the black market, from cigarettes to Tickle Me Elmo to Pop Rocks. Relatively few require refrigeration. But when the United States was in the throes of World War II in the early 1940s, Pittsburgh and other areas were struggling with a new category of illegal trade—illicit cuts of meat.

According to Senator John Heinz History Center contributor Leslie Przybylek, the rotten commerce began when the federal government started rationing meat for American consumers to make sure domestic and Allied troops were being properly fed.

The rationing was in response to a failure on the part of citizens to give up meat voluntarily. In 1942, the government began urging people to limit their intake. Posters hung on grocers' walls featured slogans like “make it stretch” and “share the meat.”

Consumers were having none of it and continued frying up steaks. When rationing began in March 1943, beef and steak were limited, though highly processed meats like sausages were exempt. Adults and kids over 12 were allowed 2.5 pounds of meat weekly, which were tracked with rationing coupon books. A citizen witnessing someone breaking the “home front pledge” and eating too many sirloin tips could be reported to the local rationing board.

Propaganda posters warned consumers about paying for black market meat.
Propaganda posters warned consumers about paying for black market meat. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At the same time, beef distributors diverted meats away from retail refrigerators and sold directly to the government, which would have no choice but to pay inflated prices.

Low supply and high demand created an opportunity for so-called “meatleggers,” who divvied up animals on the hush-hush and sold the cuts of meat for premium prices without any oversight. The government tried to fight back with old-fashioned propaganda, encouraging short films and radio shows to warn of the perils of eating untraceable meat.

This rancid business slowed when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist Ray Sprigle made the rounds in Pittsburgh, proving the existence of a shady meat trade by visiting wholesale grocers and back-alley dealers and rounding up over a ton of illegal cuts. It prompted a crackdown by the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which was responsible for rationing goods and controlling price gouging. It also led to a U.S. grand jury indicting several dealers.

By 1946, the crisis had largely passed, and Americans no longer had to bother meeting black market butchers and taking home their questionable lamb chops.

[h/t Senator John Heinz History Center]