Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Higher the Calories, The Cheaper the Food?

A Los Angeles Times article from November caught my attention. It seems food policy and obesity experts are worried that as our economy sours, we will buy more highly processed foods, most of which are very unhealthy for our bodies and the land. When money is tight, we trade off fresh fruits, vegetables and meats for cookies and chips. And while we spend less, we get fatter.

Why? We're not stupid. It's about bang for the buck. Processed foods (chips, candies, mac & cheese), on a calorie for calorie basis cost less than low calorie, more nutritious foods (broccoli, apples, salmon).

But where's the logic there? How can machine created foods cost less than something that comes pretty much straight from a tree?

One reason is that with manufactured foods, one can add preservatives to extend shelf life and keep costs low. Think less waste. A second reason is that the government subsidizes the main ingredients, such as corn, wheat, rice, or soybeans.

Here's how this connects to beef, or just meat in general. If we collectively substitute boxed food for fresh food, my fear is that the good folks who actually produce fresh, clean, great tasting meat will be forced economically to return to producing commodity food e.g. beef laden with growth hormones or cheap feed or both.


We can't ask people to spend money they don't have.

But here are some thoughts on how you might be able to keep clean, well-raised meats in your diet and support good farmers, humane treatment, and sustainable practices while you’re at it.

  • We've been successful at keeping costs down by buying even fewer packaged goods than before and maintaining our purchases of high quality meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it or, far better, buy meat that's been professionally frozen to begin with. Today's blast-freezing technology freezes meat so quickly that it prevents the formation of ice-crystals that can lead to freezer burn or a loss of liquid during thawing.

  • For steaks, do what many restaurants do, buy a whole piece, e.g. the entire Strip Loin, and have it cut into steaks and vacuum-sealed for you. You can also save by choosing Sirloin or Flat Irons or other less expensive cuts or eating smaller portions – a 12 oz New York Strip Loin steak can easily feed 2 or even 3 people.

  • For stew, try a cross-rib roast and cut it into cubes yourself.

  • If you have a food processor or meat grinder, buy a whole brisket and use this to make delicious homemade ground beef.

As long as the cattle were raised with care and without the use of artificial growth stimulants (hormones, antibiotics) and the beef has been properly aged - at LEAST 7 days (and ideally 14 days or more) - you can get great, flavorful, tender meat. By being smart about the way you buy it, you can also get it for a very good price.

If you have further tips to share, please let me know, I’d welcome guest posts.

Or, if you’re looking for more tips, please send me a note at Carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com.

Monday, January 5, 2009

All Beef Is Grass-Fed

Thanks to Caron Golden, a San Diego based food writer and radio host (@carondg on Twitter), on December 29, I was alerted to a news story covering a taste test in a Portland, Oregon-area elementary school comparing burgers from grass-fed vs. grain-fed cattle.

I found the story disheartening, so much that I’ve spent the last week trying to track down the author or other participants in the study to clarify what I saw as significant flaws. Today I spoke with Cory Schreiber of the Oregon Department of Agriculture – what a great person - who confirmed some of my fears.

The two-part study, funded by the USDA but managed by Oregon State University, had two key findings. The first was that the school children could tell the difference between the grass-fed and grain-fed patties. The second was that about half (45 of 91) preferred the grass-fed burgers.

Based on these results, the school district elected to stick with commodity beef, with a representative explaining, “For now, since there was not a strong preference for the grass-fed patty, and it is more expensive, we will not be able to afford to serve the grass-fed patty on a regular basis."

So what’s wrong with this picture? Too many things to count but let’s just focus on the big one.

These kids were NOT, I repeat, NOT comparing grass-fed with grain-fed beef.

Actually, the burgers were both created using grain-fed beef. The article even says this up front, citing the "grass-fed" beef supplier as saying: “[The patties are] made from Angus steers in Oregon and Washington that are raised on grass, but for the last four months of their lives are fed grain and corn to fatten them up.”

How could the journalist get this wrong?

Oh wait, it gets worse.

The study was not set up to determine the relative merits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed hamburgers in the first place. The grant program that funded it was created to help interested parties evaluate the merits and costs of investing more into locally produced food.

It’s simple and unfortunate. This is a complicated category of food and there are a heck of a lot of fuzzy definitions floating around out there (and frankly, a fair amount of obsfucation, too, but that’s a whole other conversation). However, if you’re a reporter covering this news, I think it’s worth taking the time to ask questions, to clarify and confirm. And then keep an eye out for any editing that might inadvertantly change the meaning of the story.

Unfortunately, this story is being widely circulated. Not only is this hurting the prospects of those who do produce grass-fed or naturally raised beef, but it also underminessupport of the promotion of locally sourced products in our nation’s schools.

How can you help? Help others understand the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Here's something easy to remember:

ALL Beef Is Grass-Fed.

Yes, all. It’s just that some beef is fed only grass right up to their last day. The other 98 percent or more may be fed grass early in life but are finished on a diet of grasses and grains. This is an important distinction as the diet has a huge affect on taste and texture. In addition, a grass-only diet is a more natural diet for cattle and a proper grass-only program can keep land healthy and even help fight global warming.

If you know me at all, you know that I am a strong proponent of grass-fed beef. But I take a practical view, knowing that it will take years, even decades, to transition the industry to a grass-fed only system. So, I’m willing to support top-notch grain-finishers who meet or exceed my company’s minimum (and quite high) standards, thinking of it as like supporting a farm in transition to organic. But, there is a difference and consumers (as well as journalists) should know and understand this.

If you want the benefits of grass-fed beef -- Eat Wild is an excellent reference -- ask your butcher or grocer or farmer or online purveyor if it is GRASS-ONLY beef.

Don’t be surprised if the seller doesn’t know what you’re talking about but ask anyway. We need to create transparency in this category. Consumers have a right to know what exactly they’re eating and sellers should be more interested in providing consumers what they want, as well as educating themselves. It’s their business after all.

ps Sorry for the more strident tone. Perhaps I'll be smart enough to come back and edit this at a later date ;-)