Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part II

I have created (I think so anyways) some new terminology to describe most beef sold at retail: Zero-Aged Beef.

What does this have to do with cloned livestock? Well, if the Number 1 complaint among meat eaters is tough or inconsistent tasting meat, then proper aging is one half of the solution. (I attempted to summarize the other half in Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part I below.)

Tough beef can be caused by a number of factors, including breed, the specific genetics of a particular beef cattle (think tenderness genes), diet, temperament, and stress (whether natural or man-made). Also, some cuts of beef are just naturally tougher as they come from more active muscle groups. Most beef cuts are indeed rather naturally tough.

One time-honored way to overcome these variables is to tenderize beef by aging it post slaughter. The "traditional" way (pre-1970s as I understand it) is called Dry-Aging. With Dry-Aging, a carcass or certain parts are air-dried in a humidity-controlled cooler for a period of time, most often 14 to 21 days. Enzymes break down muscle tissues, tenderizing the meat. (More details at a later date.)

The "new" way is often referred to as Wet-Aging. In this case, certain parts of the carcass, e.g. the Round or Tenderloin, are wrapped in vacuum-sealed packages and kept in a cold environment for a period of time. While the process is different, the outcome is the same, the beef tenderizes with time.

Unfortunately, both aging techniques are very expensive. A rancher or retailer must carry inventory and storage costs during the aging period. In the case of Dry-Aging, the seller can also lose up to 20% of the original weight of the beef due to moisture loss and the need to trim off the edges, which become dry and inedible.

Because of this higher cost, almost no retailer or food service operator ages beef these days. The end result is Zero-Aged, very often tougher meat.

The cloning companies are correct, they can use genetic selection to optimize beef cattle for tenderness. But ranchers can already use genetic selection for this purpose. It’s not an easy process, can take years to achieve, and is still subject to the whims of nature or Darwinism, but it can be done. I’ll leave the “hows” to a new post.

Dry-Aging or Wet-Aging beef to tenderize beef will not necessarily lead to higher quality or a more consistent taste - see below. But it's a start.

If you do want all three things (consistent tasting, high quality, tender beef) ask the seller questions what steps are being taken to ensure consistent quality, taste, and tenderness.

If you hear something like “We specialize in X breed and get feedback from our processor about each of our cattle and use this to determine which cows and bulls to keep and pair. We also (dry- or wet-) age our beef (a minimum of 7) days,” then you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part I

As expected, the FDA approved the sale of food from cloned livestock, declaring that they found no evidence of harm to humans who might ingest the meat.

The cloning companies argue that they are creating clones to meet consumer demand, citing tough or generally inconsistent taste and quality as the Number 1 complaint among meat eaters. By using uniformly high-quality clones as breeding stock, the meat from said livestock will be uniform, too.

We do not need cloned livestock to achieve this result!

The reason that beef taste and quality is inconsistent from week to week (if not steak to steak) is because there are literally dozens if not hundreds of beef breeds raised on different diets in different regions that, as a result, naturally vary in taste and texture. Unfortunately, all this glorious variety gets lumped together at shelf and labeled “beef.”

This is a little oversimplified, but it's as if all red wine grapes grown in North America were crushed and blended together at random, placed in green bottles and sold as “red wine.”

While many ranchers, feed yard operators, or processors raise and finish “sale barn” cattle (a hint is that their herd has cattle of all shapes, sizes, and colors grazing on the same pasture or munching at a trough), there are great producers who specialize in a single breed or crossbreed. The best among these use a carefully chosen diet, practice low-stress management techniques, analyze the performance of their herds over time, and use genetic selection (ideally the natural kind) to optimize for certain characteristics that impact the taste and quality of beef, including tenderness.

The problem is that these outstanding producers RARELY GET PAID for this extra effort!

With an industrialized system set up to maximize throughput to maintain margin, it is simply not considered cost effective to sort cattle at large feed lots or slaughterhouse door, let alone on the shelf.

If we consumers want more consistent quality beef that suits our personal palates or priorities, we have the ability to vote with our pocketbooks and support these top-notch producers. We’ve found a number of them over the past two years and are featuring four in our online marketplace today. There are others. Please seek them out, determine what style of beef you prefer (similar to what varietal of wine best suits your fancy), look for beef that’s been aged (to be addressed further in the next post), and make a purchase.