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.