Saturday, November 17, 2007

Is Stress Edible?

This is one of the most fascinating and powerful arguments I've ever heard about why we need to pay close attention to the food we eat.

Stephanie Daniel and Dr. Joon Yun, authors of a book called Low Stress Food, argue that one key reason we humans feel stressed is because we literally injest stress that exists in the food we eat. To quote from their Web site (, "The unnatural stress imparted on animals and plants through the industrialized food infrastructure is coming full circle back to those who consume them in a perverse version of 'you are what you eat.'"

The corollary: if we eat food raised under less stressful conditions, we will lower our own levels of stress commensurately.

The beauty is that low-stress food not only has nice moral and environmental implications, it is also highly likely to taste better.

For instance with beef, there is a direct correlation between excess levels of stress hormones and tough meat. While tenderness is a function of many things -- genetics, diet, handling, and aging are the most important -- cattle that have suffered significant stress (whether from dramatic swings in weather, poor handling, or a multitude of other causes) have a far higher liklihood of being tough.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

People I Admire

I just love this story and this lovely lady. Diane Del Signore was introduced to me by one of my advisors, Rob Hurlbut, former CEO of Niman Ranch. She'd approached him, as had I, for advice on how to break the commodity trap in red meat, starting with beef.

Like me, Diane would like to see the grass-only beef industry blossom. She's provided guidance and support now for nearly a year in our endeavor to rethink the beef industry from a consumer's perspective.

In the meantime, she's put her talk into action in a related field: growing backyard chickens. An article in Oakland Magazine tells the story. You can read more about Diane on her Website, Snap Pea Partners.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Royal Agricultural Fair Debut

We had the great pleasure of debuting The Oliver Ranch Company at the 85th Anniversary of the Ontario Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. This is the premier event in Ontario for beef cattle and dairy breeders, who show their prized heifers, bull calves, cows, and bulls. Huge, cattle sized blow dryers and glitter paint everywhere, you have never seen such pampered livestock (or cute kids).

The highlight for us was talking to consumers and farmers from throughout Ontario and Quebec about our new online marketplace for connoisseur quality, natural or organic beef.

In particular, we want to thank two gentlemen from Hamilton, Ontario, who officially became the first in Ontario to place an order for our exquisite beef.

They wisely selected one of our Discover Beef Experience tasters packs and I hear they plan to host a New Year's steak-tasting extravaganza. They'll be comparing Dry Aged Charolais, Dry Aged 100% Black Angus, Wet Aged Friesian, and Wet Aged Wagyu - Angus Cross (sometimes known as "Kobe-Style" beef). Looking forward to the results. So far, there's no clear winner, each style has been "favorited" many times.

Hats off to Bill Duron and team who put on this fabulous fair each year. And thanks to Carl Cosack, my colleague and owner of Peace Valley Ranch and Rawhide Adventures, Adrienne, Leah van Draanen-Earwaker, Steve Earwaker, Jo-Anne van Draanen, Brian Belanger, and Jenna van Draanen-Earwaker for helping us in the booth.

Finally, thanks to Myna, Connie, and Wanda from the Ontario Potato Growers and to Dave, Erin, Scott, Richard, and the other fine folks from the Wheat, Soybean, and other seed boards who entertained us with the Farmers Feed Cities roulette wheel. (If you got three 7s, you got a free T Shirt.) Best neighbors you could have!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Update on The Elliott / Ferris Charolais

What a great tribute to the Elliott / Ferris in this article by Larry Dreiling in "The High Plains / Midwest Ag Journal." Also, we liked them so much we plan to carry some of their beef in our very first product release! Stay tuned, just a few weeks more...

Here's is some raw footage of some of their Charolais and Charolais / Cross bred cattle. Guessing you can spot the difference.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

If Ketchup is Ketchup, is Beef Beef?

There is a disturbingly hilarious Daily Show skit on Comedy Central on the subject of cloned meat. Beware, the subject matter may offend some viewers.

The author of “When Is Prime Not Prime?” (see Daily Business Life) took a more serious crack at the subject and has an interesting take. He argues that if cloning is used to produce a demonstrably superior beef cattle -- say, one that always grades USDA Prime – then eventually all beef producers will begin producing the same (cloned) beef, rendering the once demonstrably superior beef a commodity. Number 2 Corn, redux?

Seems that to be true, there would have to be such a thing as a singularly demonstrably superior beef cattle. There may be from the retail or production point of view -- uniformity could increase throughput and yield and thus improve marginal profitability. Consumers could foreseeably benefit, too, from a more consistent beef eating experience.

But is there really a single “flavor” of beef that is preferred by all people?

Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”) wrote a fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “The Ketchup Conundrum.” Basically, he argues that there is no such thing as the perfect spaghetti sauce or the perfect mustard because different people prefer different tastes and textures. And that this rule appears to be true for every food category but one: ketchup. Somehow, Heinz ketchup offers a perfect blend of the 5 “primal” tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. The article concludes with a taste expert shrugging “I guess ketchup is ketchup.”

Could it be true that beef is beef? Is there a perfect blend out there that appeals to virtually every individual in America?

My experience suggests an emphatic “no!” And I for one think this is something to celebrate.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Compliments To The Elliott & Ferris Families

My colleagues, Carl and Christopher Cosack, visited a Colorado ranch recently and sent me back some samples of the ranch’s dry-aged, grain-finished Charolais and Charolais-cross rib-eye steaks. I was saving the steaks for a special blind taste testing party but my husband didn't know this and accidentally cooked one up.

Hats off to the Elliott and Ferris families who raised this beef. The steak was full of flavor -- it even stood up to some fairly strong competition from the Montreal Steak salt used as a marinade. And it was plenty tender.

It’s worth noting that we cooked up a strip loin from our local butcher alongside the rib-eye. Not a perfectly fair comparison but the strip loin was milder tasting and thus in my opinion a bit overwhelmed by the marinade. FYI, the butcher couldn’t tell us the breed but based on my experience with taste testing, the strip loin was likely Angus-cross, as Angus influence seems to produce a lighter flavor (bland to me, yummy to others.)

Anyway, if you happen to like steak with a lot of flavor, try to get your hands on some dry-aged Charolais beef. Suspect the best way to enjoy the steaks is to serve them naked – once they’re cooked, drizzle a little olive oil and maybe a squeeze of lemon and a dusting of sea salt. But if you want a simple twist, here’s a simple recipe:


Charolais or Charolais-cross Rib Eye Steaks
At least 1” thick and preferably dry-aged 14-21 days
Montreal Steak salt (MSG-free)
Worcestershire Sauce (we use Lea & Perrins)
Hickory Chips
Aluminum Foil


Generously sprinkle both sides of the steaks with Montreal Steak salt and Worcestershire sauce. Let marinade at room temperature (covered) about 15 minutes while you prepare the grill.

Pre-heat gas or charcoal grill to high (about 475 F). While it’s heating, put a handful or two of hickory chips in a 12” section of foil and fold in the sides and top to create a pouch. Punch 10-20 small holes in the foil pouch and place it on the grill. It will start to smoke.

Sear the steaks on one side for 2-3 minutes (lid closed) and then flip them with a spatula or tongs and reduce the heat to medium high (about 400 F). Grill the steaks to rare or medium rare (or more if you like, though you’ll lose some flavor and tenderness). Let steaks rest at least 5 minutes before cutting and then serve ‘em up, sliced or whole.

Feel free of course to use your own grilling techniques. Just don’t pierce the steaks while they’re cooking or resting or you’ll lose the juices that keep it moist.

Note: I personally recommend that you choose from farm or ranch like Colorado's Best Beef Company that finishes their beef without the use of synthetic growth enhancers (e.g. sub-therapeutic antibiotics or growth hormones). At minimum, they can negatively influence the taste and tenderness of the meat.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ms. Heifer USA

I have never seen such a thing: cattle being blow-dried, being groomed so each hair is exactly in its place.

Breeding cattle is serious business and these beauties here at the Western National Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, must be some of the most pampered on the planet. See if you can name the breeds.

A quick blow dry here....

And some fine tuning there:

And if these aren’t crop circles, what are they?

We’ll tell you the answer and come back to why this all matters on another date.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Great Fish Masquerade

Seems that the global fish industry is up to something, well, fishy: mislabeling in order to undermine marketing campaigns meant to help consumers choose more eco-friendly fish.

According to an article by Jennifer Jacquet on AlterNet, long-line caught hake (left photo) is out there masquerading as tilapia (right photo), the darling of the sustainable fish movement. The endangered shark is being recast as scallops, flounder, or tuna...

So how do you tell what fish is really on your plate?

The beef industry has the technology to trace specific lots or even specific steaks back to a particular farm or cattle. The technology may not be used much except by some of the better natural or organic beef programs out there. But at least it exists.

Traceability for fish seems a bigger challenge. After all, some fish are still harvested from the open oceans, where there aren't any fences.

I personally think the solution for beef (and other meats) is to leverage source-verification technology to provide complete transparency to the consumer. Let us know the breed, where it was raised, how it was raised, what it ate, where it was slaughtered, etc. and let us vote with our wallets to support sustainability or specific farms or whatever criteria are important to us.

Wondering if anyone is trying to offer up a similar solution for fish.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What In The World Is Pasteurized Beef?

My husband and I were at a burger chain the other day in Toronto and noticed that the menu claimed their hamburgers were made of "lean pasteurized ground steaks." Neither of us had ever heard of pasteurized steaks and so asked the wait staff. Poor hapless fellow didn't have a clue (indeed, he didn't seem to be aware of the boast in the first place).

When working at Labatt (mmmm, beer) I learned that pasteurization is a process in which foods and beverages are heated to high temperatures in order to reduce the number of pathogens, such as bacteria, in the food. But with burgers, it was my impression that cooking the meat until it is well done would serve the same purpose.

Anyway, I wrote an email to the company but it's been a few weeks with no response so I couldn't resist using a trusty search engine to do a little research. It seems that a few years back, a US Senator from Iowa inserted language into a bill allowing irradiated beef to be labeled as (cold) pasteurized. According to a posting on the regulations at the time required irradiated food to be labeled as such in both text and with this symbol (which by the way doesn't look too scary to me and in fact suggests the opposite: green and natural).

Does anyone know whether the Harkin amendment was enacted or what "pasteurized" beef means in Canada?

Friday, February 23, 2007

1,000 Breeds of Cattle (!)

This book sounds amazing so I ordered it up. Written by Marleen Felius, a Dutch author and illustrator, it has over 800 pages with information, photographs, and illustrations covering more than 1,000 breeds of cattle.

15 months back, when I began my quest for the perfect organic steak, I knew the name of a single breed of beef cattle, Angus, and two dairy cattle, Holstein and Jersey. I do remember driving by some cows near my mom's home that looked suspiciously like Oreo cookies. But I never paused to wonder why it might matter that these funny looking creatures were out there munching blithely on Napa Valley grass. (This is a photo of one that we spotted in December in Palo Alto, CA - turns out they're called Belted Galloways.)

Attend a single day of an agricultural fair and you'll find out that breed matters quite a bit; indeed, breeders are absolutely passionate about why theirs is best. Some breeds have more docile temperaments, adjust better to certain climates or terrain, have stronger maternal instincts, produce smaller calves, are genetically pre-disposed to intra-muscular marbling or have bigger bones and muscles with which to pull a plow. Some breeds are very small (Dexters, originally from southwestern Ireland), medium (Herefords, from England), or large (Charolais, from France).

Better yet, ask a beef rancher how his or her breed tastes compared to others, especially the well-known Angus, and you will spark a most interesting discussion. You see, today's ranchers aren't rewarded by how good their beef tastes. Instead, they're rewarded based on how well the beef pays out at the slaughterhouse, e.g. how much meat you get vs. fat, or "yield."

Now breed alone does not determine taste and tenderness. Probably more important is what the cattle ate, and not just grass or grain but what kind of grass or grain, the specific genetics of each cattle, and how it was raised (see previous entries).

But next time you buy a steak or roast or burger, see if the butcher or retailer can tell you what the breed is and how it will taste compared to other types of beef. Then, please do come tell me the answer, along with whether you like the taste and why. I've tried this and it's not only fun sport, it's illuminating.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Whole Foods Buys Even More Market Power

Whole Foods has apparently agreed to buy its rival, Wild Oats, for $565 million. This should certainly help them compete against larger rivals, who have stepped up efforts to sell organic and natural products. According to Marketwatch, Whole Foods has been struggling with slow same-store sales and a tough pricing environment. But will the company's increased market power help or hurt organic farmers?

This should make next week's debate between John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods, and Michael Pollan, investigative journalist, pictured below, even more interesting.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bad News for Grass Finished Beef?

Allan Nation reports in his new blog that Whole Foods, to meet demand for grass-finished beef, is slaughtering cattle that are well short of being ready for market. The short-term result is a poor eating experience for the customer. The long-term result may be that people get turned off of grass-finished beef, thinking it's not as good as grain-finished. This could be very bad news for those of us who prefer a high quality, grass-finished beef. I'm hopeful this topic will be addressed by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey during their upcoming debate in Berkeley on February 27th.

The other sad news was a story I read in the January 2007 edition of The Stockman Grass Farmer. Apparently, Mesquite Organic Beef, a Colorado based certified organic grass-fed beef company, went out of business because Wild Oats decided to switch vendors from Mesquite to an Australian grass-fed beef program which offered a lower price. I can't vouch for Mesquite's beef as I've never tasted it, but I am saddened for the founder and his team, including the ranchers, farmers, and processors, who undoubtedly worked very hard to build this program.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Farm to Fork II

Rather than explore the negatives of the current system, let’s discuss the potential positives when the number of steps on the way from farm to slaughterhouse are reduced. Note: keep in mind that I am not an expert in raising livestock. However, I’ve spent the last 14 months learning as much as I can about the subject. I encourage you to learn more on your own and will cite authoritative references or other opinions when relevant.

Better Quality. Logic alone suggests that the longer a particular manager or family watches over a particular herd, the more they will get to know the individual cattle and be able to spot opportunities or trouble in advance. It works the other way, too: the livestock get used to a single management style, voice, process, and surroundings. We all know that change can cause stress. With fewer disruptions, cattle are apt to be healthier and produce better quality meat.

Fewer Diseases. In general, the closer you keep your system, the fewer chances of transferring diseases. Just like what happens in a daycare center or an office building, bringing livestock together from different places and putting them in confined quarters increases the likelihood of their getting sick. Today’s proscribed solution is to add antibiotics at the sub therapeutic level to the cattle feed as a preventative measure. I'd personally rather eat meat from beef animals that have been raised in such a way as to keep them healthy without such measures.

Less Pollution. The less the beef is moved, the fewer gallons of fossil fuel needed to bring it to market. In addition, properly managed farms and ranches actually help sequester carbon. The data is pretty compelling that confined animal operations create the opposite effect. Take a look at this article from The Rolling Stone called “Boss Hog” or get a copy of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for further reading.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Farm to Fork

A lot of us are starting to care about the source of our food – we want to know what’s on our plate and how it got there.

I was personally surprised to learn that the average beef animal passes through some 4-5 hands before it even gets to the slaughterhouse door. Why might this matter? Here’s my take. Would love to hear yours.

First, here are some possible benefits of this system:

Specialization. It allows farms to get really good at doing one thing, e.g. breeding, raising calves, getting calves ready for the backgrounder or feedlot.

Cash Flow. It can take up to 2 years to raise beef cattle to market size (and more for some styles). That’s a long time to go without being paid.

Economies of scale. In principle, it allows farms with only a small number of cattle to find a market. For instance, auction houses can bundle cattle from different farms into groups that are then easier to sell. It takes 40,000 lbs of livestock (about 40 market-weight cattle or up to 80 calves) to efficiently fill a truckload on the way to a feedlot.

What about the negatives? Let’s explore those in the next post.

We can also ponder what the dollar signs mean in the image below.