Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lessons From Argentina, Walking Away from GrassFed is Bad

Allan Nation, the man when it comes to pastured finished livestock, blogs about Argentine farms in a perfect storm situation. I encourage you to go to this page and choose "Click Here for Allan's Blog" and read the short note entitled "Argentine Farming In Melt-down."

If you don't have time (it's a really short, easy read) the basic issue is this. Traditionally, Argentine ranchers rotated their grain crops with grassfed beef every few years. This allowed the ranchers to grow grain without the use of added nitrogen as the cattle naturally fertilized the pastures in the off years.

Last year, many looked at soaring grain prices and sold off their cattle to switch to grain-only.

Well, grain prices have dropped and it now costs more to grow the grain crops than the crops are worth. Combine this with some odd-sounding government policies to keep domestic beef costs artificially low and you have a real problem.

Allan doesn't come right out and say this so I will. Pasture finishing livestock can make soil healthy and reduce carbon footprint (and even sequester it). We should be encouraging this and remember this point when others suggest instead that we should stop eating meat altogether.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Next Artisan Butcher - New Reality Show?

Great article out of West Cork, Ireland, about traveling artisan butchers.

Why might this matter?

One of the first things I learned while becoming an official Beef Geek (aka The Steak Lady): You can do everything right on the farm but the moment that cattle walks onto a truck, a lot of things can go wrong.

First, no sharp corners, no slippery ramps, no cattle prods or yelling. Spooking cattle is not only ethically wrong, it = tough, dark, dry beef. No kidding, stress directly impacts taste and texture.

And bruises hurt and also ruin the beef - the bruise shows in the meat and has to be cut out.

Second, at the slaughterhouse itself, very special care must be taken. Cattle are herd animals, they're okay with their group but you cannot introduce them to another herd in the yard. A good slaughterhouse will be specifically designed to minimize stress and likely come with a stamp of approval from Temple Grandin.

Bottom line: one of the most important things that influences taste and texture is low-stress handling.

Now these totally cool traveling artisan butchers in Ireland offer a fabulous solution for minimizing stress. The slaughterhouse comes to the farm, no trucking needed. There are a few pioneering folks trying to do the same thing here in North America, but I think what's intriguing is that these folks are real butchers - they know how to age and cut beef, too.

How might we support these folks? I say we should create a new reality show, America's Next Artisan Butcher!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just What Is Angus Beef - Part 2

By the way, that black hair gene is pretty dominant. In other words, most cattle crossed with a Black Angus will come out 51% or more black haired.

Some estimate more than 80% of cattle in North America could qualify.

Intrigued? Here's a bit more (linking to Just What is Angus Beef - Part 1).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Just What Is Angus Beef - Part 1

The answer might surprise you, especially if you're a wine aficionado.

To be marketed as Black Angus* beef, the USDA requires one of two things:

  1. The cattle must have at least 50% provable Angus genetics -or-

  2. Have at least 51% black hair

There are some minor exceptions but for the most part, the good folks on the slaughterhouse line can check each cattle’s papers as they pass on by, call in CSI to do a DNA test, or eyeball the hair color.

By comparison, a US winemaker must meet three criteria in order to label his or her wine as a particular varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

  1. Grapes from a designated appellation (i.e. Napa Valley) -and-

  2. At least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes -and-

  3. The entire 75% grown in the designated appellation

Now, I think most people would agree that said wine with 25% Merlot grapes would taste different than said wine with 25% Pinot Noir grapes.

So with wine, at minimum, place, grape variety, %’s matter.

Heck, wine drinkers have been known to argue mightily over vintages that come from the same appellation and grape variety but are grown in different pockets of that appellation. Have you ever read the Squires / eBob board (as in Robert Parker)?

Why wouldn’t we celebrate the fact that 50% Black Angus – 50% Limousin beef might have a different flavor and texture than 50% Black Angus – 50% Hereford? With the right paperwork, they’d both qualify as Black Angus. But they'd surely taste different. Especially if they were fed different diets in different regions.

I for one think it would be great to have folks be arguing as passionately about beef origin and style as they do about wine.

Why? At minimum, if we actually know what's on our plate, we can choose the style of beef we like best.

Even better, the very best beef -- artisan beef -- comes from producers, truckers, and butchers who raise cattle in low-stress, clean, drug-free conditions.

It's the next logical step in the move to support natural and organic, humanely raised meat.

* The Certified Black Angus program is more stringent than the USDA criteria. You can check out their additional requirements, here.

ps The cattle in that photo are 75% Black Angus - 25% Limousin cattle from Peace Valley Ranch in the Hills of the Headwaters region in Southern Ontario.

pps Special thanks to three charming gentlemen on Twitter @mmWine, @eljefetwisted, and @randyhall for helping me find the wine criteria from the Tobacco, Tax, and Trade Bureau.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Does Filet Mignon Cost So Much?

Don't be shy, this is a really good question.

Take a look at this photo of a whole tenderloin, compliments of Australia Produce.
Notice that it's shaped like an elongated cone - starts big at one end and tapers almost to a point. And the big end has this, well, flap thingy thing.

Now look at how Filet Mignon aka tenderloin steaks are typically cut.

That's right, to get the pretty round steaks we're used to seeing in fine dining establishments the rancher can lose as much as 50% of this meat - the tenderloin tips and that flap - to trim!

Trim usually ends up in hamburger meat, which we expect to be really inexpensive.

A talented, conscientious artisan butcher can salvage the two ends by making tenderloin tips or bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon.

If you want unbelievably tender meat for a beef bourguignon or stew, or love the idea of combining bacon and steak together, look for tenderloin tips and bacon-wrapped filet mignon / tenderloin steaks from top quality farms and ranches.

They're not only inexpensive, when they come from artisan beef ranchers, they taste amazing. Plus, buying them helps artisan beef producers stay in business.

Beef Tenderloin on Foodista

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Grass-Fed Beef & Droughts Don't Mix

A lot of people have asked me why grass-fed (what I like to call grass-only) beef is more expensive, given that the ranchers / graziers don't have to give the cattle growth hormones or preventative antibiotics to improve their, er, ability to get big fast.

Well, that's one of the points, grass-only beef takes longer to get to the delicious stage - typically 24 months vs. 12 to 14 months for commodity beef. For a farmer, it's kind of like working really hard but not getting paid until 8 months later.

Here is one more reason: grass is not only seasonal, it's really fickle.

And a long drought can be devastating.

If you raise beef cattle and there's no green grass during your growing season (which varies around the country), you either need to 1) rely on dried grasses or fermented dried grasses (aka silage), 2) sell your calves and/or 3) unbenownst to me until I saw an article by Terence Chea via AP , sell your cows to a feedyard or slaughterhouse.

A few years drought = no dried grasses.

Guys, it takes a very long time nurture a female calf into a calf-producing cow. (As I understand it, minimum 2 years and that's after a 9 months gestation period.)

And cattle finished on dried grass or silage will taste different.

My best wishes for a good, balanced rainy season to the good people raising and processing and aging natural and organic beef in California and environs.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How To Have a Successful Artisan Steak Tasting

My company's advocacy arm, The Artisan Beef Institute, held a fabulous steak tasting extravaganza with Jaden Hair aka SteamyKitchen a few weeks back. A lot of folks are wondering now how to have their own artisan steak tasting parties.

Okay, moment of shameless self-promotion, try one of our Discover Beef Experience Artisan Steak Taster Packs from The Oliver Ranch Company! We'll send you steaks from 4 specific natural or organic beef ranches, each representing a different breed, growing region, diet, and aging technique (some dry-aged, some wet-aged). You'll also receive a copy of our Artisan Beef Institute tasting guide and tips on hosting a home tasting.

Compare ranches, see which you like best, order more of your favorite. Voila!

Now, if you'd like to go it alone, that's fine! Please just follow these guidelines to make sure your artisan steak tasting is just that. Consider this a cheat sheet for success.

First rule of thumb is to only use steaks or burgers from known producers! These are our minimum standards.

  • Specific ranch or producer group (source-verified).

  • Single breed or cross-breed.

  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).

  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...)

  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.

  • Treated gently on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.

  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 14 days

  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.

You can try this with commodity beef, too, from your supermarket or butcher (this is how I did it the first time 3 years back). However, please note that you might set yourself up for disappointment. Why? Because they don't keep track of where the beef is from let alone its breed, diet, etc.

Why does this matter? Just like with wine, different breeds raised in different regions on different diets taste different. You need to know what's on your plate. Otherwise, you won't be able to repeat the experience!

Plus, isn't it better to support the farms and processors who DO do the right thing?

Know what's on your plate.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Beef Industry Needs To Focus On Consumer

This headline's from today's What a great idea!

Let's see if the recommendations, from marketing specialist, Tad Schroeder, make sense. He starts with 5 errors the industry makes (my comments in italics):
  • Defensiveness about criticism. "All that does is feed the fire." A tad vague, no comment.

  • Too much secretiveness. "We need to be open and honest about what we're doing." Could not agree more. Tell us exactly what's on our plate and how it got there. See this for a start.

  • Camouflaging through labeling gimmicks. For example, Schroeder said, "The word 'natural' in the meat case means almost nothing." Hallelujah!

  • Assuming "consumers are stupid." "They're not stupid. They're very savvy, and they have lots of information." And I'm trying to make them smarter.

  • Scare tactics. Eh?

And follows with 5 tips:
  • Give 'em what they want.

  • Show and tell our story.

  • Invest in new technologies that are aimed at consumers.

  • Coordinate and share information within the industry, rather than keeping it secret for what may be a short-term competitive advantage that hurts the industry in the long term.

  • Give 'em your 800 number." Encouraging consumer feedback sends the message, "I'm proud of this. Come talk to me about it."

Hmmmmmmm... These are a little vague, so let me try.

This is what we care about.

  • We care about supporting good farms and workers.

  • We care about protecting our families from bad stuff in the beef.

  • We care about happy cows.

  • We care about keeping our environment clean.

  • We care about great taste and texture.

Bottom line: Tell us exactly what's on our plate, where it's from and how it was raised and aged. Then let us decide if we want to buy from you or the other guy.

Finally, do not snooker us into believing that USDA Prime tastes better than Choice or Select. Admit it, marbling is just one factor. Different breeds raised on different farms on different diets and aged with different techiques will taste different from each other - even if they score the same USDA grade. And this is a good thing, my gosh, imagine tailoring different beef styles to each individual's personal taste buds!

If you have any doubts, please call me, I will send you an artisan steak tasting kit to prove it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Now That's What We're Talking About

Thanks to Wordle (visit them!), we're able to see what I've been talking about. Really hoping that others will join this conversation and help us change the world of beef as we know it.

ps Need to get Steak Tasting in there more often :-)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Artisan Steak Tasting Goes to Tampa!

Okay, meat lovers and sustainability advocates, it's time to change the world.

After three successful steak tastings in the San Francisco area this summer, we're taking The Oliver Ranch Company's Artisan Beef Institute(r) "Provenance of Beef(tm)" program on the road.

First stop was Tampa, Florida, where Jaden Hair aka SteamyKitchen helped gather fellow food writers and enthusiasts for a tasting of 6 different styles of natural or organic artisan beef. Read her hilarious and insightful write up, also part of 24/24/24 blog series. (That's her photo, too, she's amazing.)

Other than the delicious beef, the big hit of the evening was our tasting guide. Host a steak tasting in your home and you'll soon find that we just don't have a lot of words to describe a steak. Beefy, meaty, juicy, tender, and maybe gamy come to mind but not much else.

Also, your beefy might be my gamy, which can be very confusing.

So the guide is meant to help you evaluate which style of beef you like best -- which ranch or combination of breed, growing region, diet, and aging technique appeals most to your taste buds and why.

While we're not quite at the Robert Parker or wine wheel stage, nor do we want beef to be as complicated as wine, we'd love to share our tasting guide. Just email me carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com.

We'll also send you the tasting guide with any order from our main marketplace, The Oliver Ranch Company (

How will this change the world?

Truth is, simple labels such as grass-fed or grain-fed or for that matter USDA Select, Choice, or Prime don't come close to telling you what the beef will taste like or how tender it will be, let alone whether it will suit your personal palate.

While marbling is important, flavor and texture can also vary considerably by breed, growing region, diet, age of cattle, the particular husbandry protocols of the rancher or lot operator, low stress handling, and the aging technique (if any) used by the butcher.

The industry doesn't want us to know all this stuff matters because they want to keep things simple for themselves.

But if YOU know it and YOU find it important to know what style of beef is on your plate and who raised it and how, then we can collectively support ranchers or processors with best practices.

We get cleaner, more flavorful, even personalized meat. Ranchers can stay on the land. Workers can have safer jobs. The land can get healthier.

It's a win-win-win no matter how you look at it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Putting Some Pasture Into Organic Milk

Okay, another off-beef post. According to the Washington Post, the USDA may be closing an unfortunate loophole / gray area in the organic regulations for milk.

The new requirement, in the proposal phase, would require that dairy cows be allowed to graze on pasture for about 1/3 of the year. Now, presumably, that pasture must be technically organic.

Sam Fromartz seems on board, which sounds good. A step in the right direction (think: not all climates can support year-round pasture grazing).

Okay, on a beef-related topic, Mac Magruder and now Amazin' Grazin' in Florida seem to be onto something. They are selling younger cattle finished on pasture on a combination of cow's milk and pasture or cow's milk only and selling the beef as (genuinely) naturally raised veal. I am trying to learn more about this as I will not eat veal unless it's served to me in such a situation where refusing would be very rude. I can't abide with crate-constrained, anemic calves being served up as a specialty food. But maybe I can support Vitellone, Vitello, and Vitellini, raised with care.

Know what's on your plate.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Okay, Let's Talk Pork!

No, not pork barrel. The good and tasty kind.

I don't know nearly as much about how to properly raise pork but I do know enough to be at least a little dangerous. And it's fun to find good stories, such as this one about the Flaherty family in Iowa.

Same as with raising beef cattle, breed, growing conditions, diet, and generally low-stress husbandry and proper slaughter can make a huge difference in taste and texture. Indeed, because of the way pigs digest their food (only one stomach vs. a cattle's four), the finishing diet can have an even stronger influence than with cattle.

Some key things to look for when buying pork.

  • Outdoor raised.

  • Appropriate breed/crossbreed for growing region.

  • Pink meat. Sorry, pork is not the other white meat, that was engineered.

  • All vegetarian diet. And no weird stuff e.g. human leftovers, garbage, cookies.

  • Certified humane. Not a must but preferred. I prefer AWI standards (Animal Welfare Institute).

And talk to the farmer or brand folks and find out if anything special was added to the finishing diet. For instance, some of the world's most famous pork forages acorns in the forests in Spain.

Finally, give your farmer feedback, good and bad, so they can continue to improve.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dear Supermarket Manager

Mexico, Canada, or the United States" is not a helpful answer when I ask where your beef comes from.

C'mon, give me a break.

Are your inventory systems (and those of your suppliers) really that lame?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Melamine On A Plate Near You?

What won't we stop at in the pursuit of cheap food?

Experts are now worried that melamine, a "toxic industrial chemical," may have been used in a wide spectrum of Chinese-produced foods shipped to consumers across the world.

Recap: food and chemical industry folks in China have been found to have knowingly included melamine as a protein-booster in pet food and in feed for dairy cows. While scientists can't fully explain why, the chemical can cause kidney failure - oh, and death - in humans and pets.

At minimum these actions were morally bankrupt. But does it stop there?

Apparently not. According to the New York Times article (free subscription required), local officials are said to have commented that melamine "has been used for years in fish feed." Now, there are investigations into whether it's also being used to supplement feed for livestock including pigs and chicken. And in vitamins.

Okay, that means I've probably eaten melamine-laced food from China. You, too.

Now, I suppose it's possible that the source of this information is not unbiased. For instance, maybe some other food company would benefit if the spigot of cheap food from China were turned off or slowed.

And if you talk to enough people in the meat production industry in North America you know that lots of disturbing things go into animal feed here in a desperate attempt to keep prices low.

But I for one have stopped buying any food items from China. That is, at least I think I have. Come to think of it, manufacturers are not required to list the source of the multitude of ingredients that go into our packaged goods and probably livestock feed, too.

At minimum, no more edamame (that's right, look at the label).

Know what's on your plate.