Monday, September 3, 2007

Where's the Beef?

Here's an excellent article by a San Diego chef who specializes in local food, particularly meat. Here Jay provides insightful commentary on what differentiates commodity meat from locally bred meat. You can visit his restaurant's blog at

The World of Meat, Commodity and Otherwise by Jay, Thursday August 30, 2007
Recently we’ve found ourselves fielding a lot of questions about what it means that we don’t serve commodity meat, or just what the difference is in general between one kind of meat — be it in a steak, a burger, a roast, or whatnot — and another. This is stuff we’re only beginning to understand, largely through visits to farmers and producers. Sometimes we forget to clearly explain everything we’re learning.
So it seemed like a good time to do a recap.
The way I think of it, there are basically three types of meat we eat in America: commodity meat, branded meat, and pastured or traditional meat. I’ll discuss them by category.
1. Commodity Meat
This category includes virtually all of the meat available in the US, including almost all the meat distributed in supermarkets and corner stores. It also includes the vast majority of meat available in restaurants, which principally buy from either warehouses like Restaurant Depot or Costco, or from broadline distributors such as Sysco or US Foodservice.
Commodity meat has a very low price in the marketplace, and sets expectations that meat is inherently inexpensive. In fact, the reason the price is so low is that the commodity meat producers offset many of the costs of meat production by relying on subsidized processes (such as government subsidized corn and interstate transportation) and transferring costs to others (such as the environment, the property of their neighbors, and the health of their consumers).
Typically, commodity animals are packed in buildings as close together as possible, and are usually mutilated in some way (tails or beaks removed) in order to prevent them from eating/harming each other under the natural stress of crowding. The animals are fed a combination of the cheapest subsidized grains and also “rendered” animals, which means other animals, often of the same species, which were unfit for human consumption and have been sort of melted into fat or protein. The animals’ waste may be partially treated but ultimately contaminates waterways and soil.
The farmers and corporations who raise these animals are faceless and nameless to the marketplace, and are paid based on how many pounds of the animal they bring to the processor. The buyers assume that each animal is exactly the same (thus, a “commodity”). Therefore the farmers are rewarded for any measure that results in growing more pounds of animal in the same space, preferably with the cheapest food possible.
This leads to all the animals receiving continuous amounts of antibiotics (to reduce disease under intense crowding), and cattle and poultry receiving growth hormones to accelerate their yield. Both the hormones and antibiotics of course reach the end eater, as well.
Remember, commodity meat is almost all the meat available to us in San Diego in stores or restaurants.
2. Branded Meat
Stepping away from the troubling facts of commodity meat, a few farmers and co-ops have built niche markets in “branded” meat, usually in a market I call “thoughtful industrial”. These operations, usually independent farmers but sometimes units of big corporations, use the basic framework of factory meat but avoid the unsavory abuses of the commodity industry, and take care to raise healthful, delicious animals.
Usually the animals are thoughtfully bred for flavor and tenderness. Most of these operations have strict diet specifications (usually vegetarian only) and a policy regarding anitbiotics (usually either none, or none in the final “x” months, to allow the meat to be free of anitbiotics at slaughter). Sometimes they are organic. While not usually pastured, these farms usually treat the animals better than commodity farms — Niman Ranch and Eden Natural guarantee at least 12 square feet per pig rather than the standard 8; Fulton Valley chickens live somewhat crowded together in a big barn rather than in tight cages.Oftentimes these operations are sensitive about land stewardship and the environment, as well.
The farmers and companies raising this kind of meat are building a brand, and have a lot at stake. They pay attention to quality and wholesomeness, while also paying attention to the bottom line.
This method of farming usually provides much more delicious and much less scary meat. While still relying on subsidized architectures such as commodity corn, and transportation infrastructure, the farms don’t externalize nearly as many costs to the environment or to community health.
As a result, these producers charge a substantial premium, hopefully justified by taste quality, and through that premium offset the higher costs of running a factory that doesn’t directly destroy the environment or the health of their consumers.
This kind of meat can be branded by the producer (such as Niman Ranch), by the diet of the animal (“Pure Lamb”), and sometimes by a combination of breed and method (American Kobe Beef, Jidori Chickens).
In San Diego you can buy meat like this at some niche grocers like Whole Foods and possibly at some farmer’s markets. Some local restuarants serve this kind of meat, a couple favorites that come to mind instantly are Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest (all their meats are branded) and Starlite Lounge in Middletown (Brandt burgers and steaks) though there are actually quite a few others that have at least one branded meat on their menu.
While we highlight pastured/sustainable meat at the Linkery, we also offer branded meat such as Brandt beef, Eden Natural pork and Vande Rose pork.
3. Pastured or Sustainable Meat
Note that, while the branded meats eschew the patent abuses of the commodity system, they still use modern industrial infrastructure to keep their costs down, and they still are raising animals in feedlots. This leaves two areas for improvement: 1) much of their costs are still being externalized to our society as a whole, and 2) We lose whatever benefits to our health and the environment have evolved as part of our historical tradition of raising animals outside as part of an integrated ecosystem we share with them.
In other words, our species is built to eat animals that roam and eat what’s on the ground. It seems likely that when we pen the animals and feed them corn that we’re missing something we’re bred to need. And of course we’re still destroying our own ecosystem by building a corn based economy — through such mechanisms as fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms creating a large “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Long term, the obvious way to restore balance to both ourselves and ecosystem is to return to raising and eating pastured meats near where we live — the way our species has raised and eaten meat for thousands of years. We won’t be externalizing any costs to the environment or to our community. And, as Michael Pollan says, there is a free lunch, and it’s called the sun. The sun grows pasture naturally, which we can’t eat but the animals we eat can.
Unfortunately, the course to returning to traditional agriculture is really hard — pasture means real estate, and an acre in San Diego costs 50,000 times more than 8 square feet in Iowa. So a lot of traditional farmers have to rely on a combination of novelty (raising rare breeds that can’t be experienced through mainstream providers), passion (providing a means for people reconnect to their land and community in a way they can’t through a feedlot), and shared spirit (recruiting people who want to eat in a sustainable way).

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