Our food-production practices are not as “out of sight out of mind” as they used to be. We’ve gone from knowing exactly where our food came from to having no real idea where our food comes from. But that is beginning to change. In our age of information everything seems to be more transparent. Many of us now have a less-than-savory view, maybe because of books like Fast Food Nation and Omnivore’s Dilemma, and our newfound relationships with real farmers, about the way livestock are raised, fed, and harvested. But even with that knowledge, I’m sure that most of us–at least, most of the people reading this–are carnivores and food people who enjoy the flavor of beef.
America is a land of choices, and the everyday decisions we make about food are not difficult; they are convenient, affordable, and tasty. But there are some people who believe that the most convenient choice is not always the best for them when it comes to beef. Lately, we’ve been presented with options that are touted as more ethical, sustainable, and healthy. Grass-fed, grass-finished beef, for instance, is a popular type of beef in the spotlight. But why? Is this because it tastes better, is healthier, better for the environment, more humane, or all of the above? Do you know what all the choices are and what they mean? How do consumers, producers, chefs, and activists decide what kind of beef to raise, buy, eat, and serve?
What do conscientious and savvy diners want to know when they are in the mood for a good burger, a juicy steak, or a tender pot roast and want to make the “right” choice? What if you found yourself in a restaurant like Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Napa Valley, looked at the menu, and saw “Kansas City strip steak”; would you second guess where that beef originated, how it was raised, and how it was fed? Would you assume that Keller put the same care into sourcing that KC strip as he did any other ingredients on his menu? I spoke with a few people on the “business-end” of the serving and selling of beef to find out what kind of thought they put into purchasing, raising, and serving their product. After speaking with chefs, entrepreneurs, and farmers, and gathering information from the Beef Council, I was able to begin to understand the multitude of other choices that confront a small niche, about 10 percent, of the beef industry.
Last week I had a simple hamburger at my neighborhood restaurant, Nightwood. Chef de Cuisine Jason Vincent’s beef is raised and processed by Slagel Family Farm in Fairbury, Ill. This is a destination-worthy burger–perfect just the way it is, dressed with a bit of spicy mustard sauce, creamy cheese, and lettuce, and served on an artisan roll. It is described on the menu simply as a “wood-grilled cheeseburger.” There is no mention of where this burger was sourced. Behind the scenes, the restaurant has made a conscientious decision to serve a certain kind of beef. If you visit Slagel’s website you will find its story, which I can only assume jibes with its customers’ needs:
“Our livestock are raised all naturally in an outdoor environment. They are fed grain and hay raised on our own farm. In addition, no implants or hormones are used. Genetic emphasis for high-marbling cattle and hogs has resulted in Slagel Family Farm producing beef and pork that yields tender, juicy cuts of meat. Consistent genetics are also very important to us so you as a customer will be satisfied time and again.
“In addition to raising our livestock without added hormones, steroids, or constant levels of antibiotics, we also control the processing. Our livestock are processed at Slagel Family Meats, our own facility in Forrest, Ill. We do not use preservatives or artificial additives during processing. This means our products are 100% pure, unlike products from large commercial companies that have 5-10% saltwater solution injected into them.”
I recently came across the blog Discover the World of Artisan Beef, which offers a unique perspective on the subject of beef choices. Carrie Oliver, an entrepreneur who founded the Artisan Beef Institute and operates an online source for beef called Oliver Ranch, markets grass-fed, grass-finished beef as well as other kinds of beef that fit her strict criteria. She believes that beef should be tasted and appreciated for its flavor in much the same way we taste and appreciate wine. Oliver likens today’s conventional beef industry to the wine industry of the ’70s and ’80s, when the choice was as simple as red and white. Today, there are so many wines, differentiated by varietal, region, and style instead of by a generic red or white label. Oliver says,
“The beef that you serve can be as interesting–and rewarding–as the finest wines at your table. It begins with knowing and learning more about what’s on your plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. From the selection of the breed to the grasslands and the feed, today’s artisanal ranchers are producing the finest offerings ever.”
To celebrate and learn about the different types of beef and their various nuances, Oliver conducts beef and burger tastings throughout North America where participants blindly taste a selection of artisan beef that she has sourced after learning about and meeting directly with ranchers. As long as we are in the business of eating beef, there are people like Oliver who are in the business of selling it. Still, the most responsible options out there could use a lot more marketing; even if they seem to be the best choice, they don’t sell themselves.
Jody Osmund, a beef farmer from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, in Ottawa, Ill., sells his beef at several farmers’ markets around Chicago and is confident that he produces consistently flavorful beef. He raises his cattle on open pasture where, like most cattle, they forage on naturally growing grasses and legumes. They are over-wintered at his farm on a high-quality mixture of corn and grain, which he may grow himself or buy from his neighbors. The animals are slowly introduced to this feed, which satisfies their caloric demands and allows them to continue to gain well-marbled weight throughout the cold winter months. A lot of people I know, myself included, go through this same dietary cycle during a long Chicago winter. Because he finishes his own cattle, they do not undergo the stress of having to be transported to a feedlot, to be mixed in with thousands of other cattle from around the country. In fact, many ranchers who raise calves to be sent to conventional feedlots worry about what happens to their animals once they get there. Oliver references one rancher who said, “One of the first things I learned: the moment that cattle gets on a truck, all my hard work can be for naught.”
The reality of industrial beef production in our country means that many cattle ranchers who have raised their calves naturally on lush pasture send them off to spend the last six months of their lives eating the cheapest corn, grain, and byproduct diets on confined-animal feeding operations–aka CAFOs, aka factory farms–with 20,000-30,000 other cattle from pastures across the country. While on these feedlots, they are fitted with hormonal growth implants and pumped up with antibiotics. The CAFO itself creates massive amounts of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous-oxide gases that are released into the atmosphere, as Nicolette Hahn Niman, a lawyer and livestock rancher, explained in a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled “The Carnivore’s Dilemma.”
Ultimately, the cattle leave the feedlots in factory-processed boxed packages, in forms that are familiar to us. This reminds me of the hunter who shoots a deer, drops it off at the local processor, and gets back a set amount of processed venison that may or not come from his particular animal because, during the height of the season, multiple animals are processed together.
I would like to be able to put my money where my mouth is and say that the best choice for me is the most flavorful beef from the farmer who took care of my product from pasture to harvest. This philosophy looks great on paper, may seem elitist to others, and is not always easy for the consumer to adhere to. Raising beef in an arguably more “right” way is specialized, and that typically translates to more expensive. This method costs farmers more–to give them quality feed, to butcher them in smaller abattoirs, to deliver the product–and in turn, it costs the consumer more money to buy it. It could be argued, though, that some of the best investments in life haven’t been cheap or easy to implement, that the benefits have not trickled down to us or society.
Ours is a “bigger is better” country, but when it comes to certain things, production on an artisan level can result in higher quality. Listed below are the sources of beef I have quoted above. There are many more around Chicago and beyond. If you want to know where your restaurant’s or your market’s beef comes from and how it was raised, ask someone who works there. In addition, I have included below a list of beef types as defined by the Cattleman’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (my own comments are italicized). Keep in mind, these are generalized industry definitions and each producer has its own way of doing things. For example, the grain-fed category references feedlots. Not all cattle are grain fed on feedlots. Sources like Oliver Ranch, farmers like Slagel and Cedar Valley, and restaurants like Nightwood market, sell, raise, and prepare beef that has never been subjected to factory farms.
Beef producers offer many varieties of beef to meet the changing lifestyles and nutritional needs of consumers. Producers have adapted their businesses to provide consumers with grain-fed, grass-finished, certified organic, and natural/branded beef products. While each kind of beef offers something different to the consumer, all kinds of beef share the common denominators that continue to spark demand: taste, nutrition, and safety.
Grain-fed beef is the most widely produced kind of beef and tends to be less expensive than other types of beef. Grain-fed cattle spend most of their lives eating grass in pasture before moving to a feedlot where they are fed a high-energy, grain diet for four to six months. Research shows consumers generally prefer the taste of grain-fed beef because of its tenderness and flavor-enhancing marbling.
Grain feeding is not limited to CAFOs. While the majority of beef sold in this country is grain fed and from CAFOs, grain feeding can be done industrially, with low-quality feed, or organically and humanely, on the farm, with high-quality feed. You will find this beef in the lowest tiers of restaurants and markets, like McDonald’s and Aldi, and in the highest tiers, like Ad Hoc and Whole Foods. A Big Mac is made with grain-fed beef, and so is the finest Kobe. While “grain-fed tends to be less expensive” on the conventional market, it is also the most expensive in the specialty market.
All cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass in pastures. However, grass-finished beef (sometimes marketed as grass-fed beef) comes from cattle that have been raised on pasture their entire lives. Producing grass-finished beef in large volumes is difficult in North America, where few regions have the growing season to make it possible. Grass-finished beef is often described as having a distinctly different taste and may require different preparation methods.
Farmers and researchers are working hard to make grass-finished beef reach its full potential by experimenting with different breeds of cattle on the best grasslands. Farmers of grass-fed beef and those who support this type of husbandry see so many benefits from this practice, including great flavor and health benefits, a positive effect on the environment, and revitalized local economies. Grass-finished beef is available at farmers’ markets as well as through online sources like Oliver Ranch and Tallgrass Beef. Some restaurants in Chicago are known for serving grass-finished beef–notably Rick Bayless’s Topolobompo, Frontera Grill, and Xoco, and Sarah Stegner’s and George Bumbaris’s Prairie Grass Cafe, which sources from Tallgrass. A Chicago hamburger restaurant called DMK Burger Bar, by Michael Kornick, will serve only grass-finished beef for its hamburgers. There is a mobile (seasonal) hamburger vendor in New York City by the name of LCB Burger Truck, named after La Cense grass-fed Angus beef from Montana. You can catch LCB’s daily location via its Twitter site, @lcbburger truck.
Certified Organic Beef
Certified organic beef must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program standards set by the Organic Foods Production Act. The cattle cannot be given hormones to promote growth or antibiotics. They cannot be denied antibiotics if they are sick, but treated cattle must be removed from the program. Organic beef tends to be more expensive than grain-fed beef.
Even though customers may have high expectations of how organic livestock is raised and processed, certified organic means exactly what its definition is: beef that has been fed 100% certified organic feed. Recent allegations of animal cruelty in a certified organic veal-processing plant have, unfortunately, shown that this label does not guarantee that the animal has been handled gently.
By definition, most beef is natural. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “natural” may be used on a beef label if the beef does not contain artificial flavor/flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and the beef is not more than minimally processed. The government’s definition of natural does not relate to the way animals are raised or what they are fed. Producers raising cattle for beef marketed with a “natural” label may follow different production practices in order to brand their beef. Common branded beef claims include “raised without hormones,” “raised without antibiotics,” “corn-fed,” “always vegetarian fed,” or “free range.” Natural/branded beef tends to be more expensive than grain-fed beef.
All-natural beef is found at specialty markets and restaurants. While all-natural is typically more expensive, it is becoming increasingly popular with some fast-food operations like Chicago’s Epic Burger and mid- and upscale restaurants. Creekstone Farms is a large producer of all-natural beef.
CONSCIENTIOUS BEEF SOURCES
2119 South Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60608-4551
Slagel Family Farm
23601 East 600 North Road
Fairbury, IL 61739
The Oliver Ranch Company and The Artisan Beef Institute
Carrie C. Oliver
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm
Jody and Beth Osmund
1985 North 3609th Road
Ottawa, IL 61350
601 Skokie Blvd # N6t
Northbrook, IL 60062-2813
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654-4682
2954 North Sheffield Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
517 South State Street
Chicago, IL 60605-1616