Not so long ago, at the onset of COVID-19, I’m pretty sure most of us could remember how the Americans baffled the rest of the world by panic-buying and hoarding rolls and rolls of toilet papers and how some of those hoarders sold them a much higher price on the trunk of their cars. Apparently, this was not the first time that this happened during a crisis when Americans ran out of products that they deemed essential. The difference was that when the United States entered World War II, instead of rolls of toilet paper, the crisis was with meat.


Right after the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States immediately began rationing supplies. However, it wasn’t the year after that the rationing efforts began limiting consumer goods. For instance, the supply of meat had to be diverted to service members on the battlefield who needed those packs of protein compared to the Americans left at home.

In the spring of 1942, the process rationing system was established and implemented through a points system. The items were rationed with designated points based on their availability and demand, pretty much just like what the British did. It was a good idea. However, the system could be confusing. Ration stamps and the value of the papers changed around every four months, and products would be taken off the ration list as a new ration book was issued. This caused confusion on which stamps could be used and which were not valid anymore.

Meat cuts displayed with ceiling prices and point values per pound, March 1943. (Photo Credit: Anthony Potter Collection/ Getty Images)

The rationing system always included other protein sources like eggs, soy products, cheese, beans, peanut butter, and the likes to ensure that the Americans could still have their daily protein intake. They also had this “share the meat” campaign that asked all US citizens over the age of 12 to limit their consumption of meat to two and a half pounds of meat per week. At the same time, dieticians, national meat councils, and local authorities joined hand in hand to come up with protein-pack recipes that could replace meat. Regardless of all these, the public was unhappy about their inability to purchase meat, and soon, illegal meat operations followed.

“Americans! Share the meat as a wartime necessity,” U. S. Government Printing Office, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (

It wasn’t just because the Americans could not last a day without consuming meat that they were displeased with the meat control. Historian Leslie Przybylek pointed out that people had just come out of the Great Depression, which prohibited them from having something they enjoyed.

Meat Crisis

By 1943, beef, pork, veal, lamb, and most especially steak were already facing shortages. Independent operators started their own operations of buying and slaughtering animals and then selling their meat on the black market at sky-high prices. The consumers could purchase this black market meat without wasting their rationing points, and they could buy as much as they wanted. Perhaps it would not be that much of a problem if the same thing happened today as there are now quite a number of vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, and other diets that do not involve animal meat.

It was, during that time, a crisis, and everybody went crazy. Businessmen would attend livestock auctions, outbid legal buyers, and then resell the animals to butchers. The black market animals were also slaughtered underground, so they were unsanitary, which meant they posed health risks to the consumers.

The Steak Shall Prevail

The federal government tried to stop illegal meat selling in various ways. Still, in 1943, a propaganda film entitled “Black Marketing” discussed the illegal meat transactions on the black market. There was also a radio show called “Fibber McGee and Molly” with a storyline that told how everyone bought and ate black market meat and got sick. The consumers, however, were not buying any of this propaganda, and the underground meat market business continued to boom.