Beef in an ideal world, a follow up

Last week, after attending the “It’s Complicated” talk about beef at Oliveto, a famous Bay Area Italian restaurant, and going to the International Heirloom Exposition, I’ve got more to say about beef, and meat in general. In my interactions with Bay Area eaters, self-proclaimed foodies, and people who are trying to be conscious about what they eat, I find there is still a lot of confusion about what to buy, where to buy, and when to buy. It makes sense, because it is truly very complicated.

I feel like getting humane, tasty, environmentally-balanced, socially responsible food is even more complicated than eating Kosher or, vegan, or gluten-free. As I said in my previous beef post, eating should be an enjoyable enterprise, not an SAT retest. However, I believe that there are more of us who see it as a worthwhile endeavor, and want to make decisions about what we eat that are good for our health, the health of the animal and farmer, and the world that will be inherited by our grandchildren. I think it is fun to discover the honey holes of sustainable food; it certainly is a great excuse to go gallivanting! Luckily there are a lot of “sustainable” foods. It’s not just happening in the Bay Area, either: look at New Hampshire. Search around online and in person and you’ll find good food people in every state of the nation.

Here are a few points that might help you thoughtful eaters out there, and hopefully help the future of our food supply, too.

What: Labels can further confuse buyers these days. There are a few that have meaning, but many are marketing terms, like Niman Ranch’s “Natural Meat” slogan. Oh, you don’t add MSG? Thanks. It is feed-lot beef. Almost all beef cattle in America are started on pasture and “grain finished,” which, in 9.8 out of 10 cases means feed lots. Look for these certifiable labels: Food Alliance CertifiedCertified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Grassfed, USDA Grassfed (some ranchers I’ve met see loopholes in this one), and various Organic certifications like the USDA and others (which has nothing to do with animal welfare, “free range”, or grass-fed, however). In general, look for meat from individual ranches that are all about transparency – like this – chances are that ranches who are not up front about their practices have something to hide. Knowing your farmer is always nice, some of them invite you to cool ranch parties if you’re lucky!

When: Beef is seasonal. Stick to stews in the dead of winter. Don’t eat chicken or eggs between mid-November and March unless you raise Chantecler chickens that are cool with cool weather. No big farms I know of raise these awesome birds, but one day I hope I will. Unless you are in the very few places in the world that have green spring grass 12 months of the year (parts of New Zealand, Scotland, and Southern Oregon), stick to eating lamb in the spring. Change is hard, but hey, change is constant. Eating corn-fed T-bones in December is not an awesome idea. Neither is eating mealy tomatoes in the winter that were picked half a world away when they were literally white. Each season is rich with yummy things to eat, but not everything can be eaten all of the time in every part of the world.

Where: In addition to my previous list of Bay Area beef purveyors, I must add 4505 Meats, and a few more Meat CSAs, and, of course, restaurants: True Grass Farms in Valley Ford raises Wagyu cattle and now that the Petaluma slaughterhouse accepts pigs, they are raising happy black hogs, too; Bay Area Meat CSA works with a few awesome ranchers and is right here in Oakland; Sonoma County Meat Buying Club is great for North Bay folks; Clark Summit Farm in Marin has a number of drop off locations and give their pigs a treat of organic whey from nearby Cowgirl Creamery. As for restaurants, a few to recommend run from high end Flour and Water or Chez Panisse to a deli with a take-out counter like Saul’s. A complete list is, well, complicated, because many restaurants that serve some grassfed beef don’t serve exclusively grassfed beef, and other meats that are sustainable. Most of the restaurants in my guidebooks serve some or all sustainable meat. I’ll work on a more complete list, for but now, go to my previous post, and, if you haven’t been to Oliveto, go. There’s a cafe downstairs that is very affordable, and even the upstairs is along the lines of the prices at the Cheesecake Factory above Macy’s where people wrongly think they’ll get a good meal. Oliveto is an amazing restaurant that thinks about the ingredients and the farmers behind each delectable dish. They’ve even started a grain company to bring back heritage wheats and corns.

A few other key points, in no particular order:

Slaughterhouses are not a danger to your community.

They are not feed lots! They are smaller than most grocery stores, and they are good for your community. They make a local meat system more possible. All ranchers need are more local slaughterhouses, and the USDA’s support getting approvals and inspectors. We, the people need to help these efforts along by giving our support to those ranchers who are patient and bold enough to be working toward making these more local. Kathryn Quanbeck, in Ukiah, was met with a lot of community confusion and downright angst when she laid out plans for a local slaughterhouse there. Finally, she’s got some common sense support. (Currently, cattle raised in Northern California must be trucked to Petaluma, or more often Fresno for slaughter. Some ranches must truck cattle hundreds of miles).  There are actually thousands of grazing acres in the East Bay Regional Parks used for breeding operations, but if there were a longer water cycle here, and if somehow East Bay folks allowed for a small, clean, slaughter house to be erected, we could have an uber-local meat source. Remember, this is land that cannot be used for traditional agriculture. In fact, land must be rested every so often, and raising animals on that resting land improves soil health as long as there are not lots of factory farms or antibiotics involved. (Or GMO alfalfa, but that is for another post. All I’ll say here is please vote for GMO labeling no matter what you think of GMO’s; it is a good thing to know before you eat. It is a really good thing to have labeled, like 22 other countries do. Your vote doesn’t mean NO GMO, it means LABELED GMOs… Monsanto’s lawyers scared off Vermont and Conneticut from keeping it on their ballots so it’s down to us California voters to set a precedent in this country.) Raising cattle or other livestock and agronomy go hand in hand; beef does not have to be contributing to deforestation or habitat loss. If there were more local slaughterhouses, there would be more local ranchers able to farm sustainably across the country, and agriculture would benefit.

Meat is seasonal, or rather, it should be seasonal.

Cattle eat different things at different times of year if they are allowed to fulfill their instincts as roaming, 4-stomached grazers. In the summer and fall, grasses are dry and seedy. As Monica at Local Butcher Shop says, “it’s like the cattle are on a spaghetti diet.” There’s lots of fat marbeling and back fat, so this is the time for quick-cooking cuts, T-bone steaks and grilling. In the winter, the same animals will be much lighter, since the grasses are green and filled with water. That’s the time for stew and slow braising.

There are tons of types of cattle, and genetics are important. Biodiversity isn’t just a cool gourmet thing.

My favorite types of cattle are Ancient White Park and American Highland, two breeds that represent hundreds of years of selective breeding and carefully considered decisions. There are dozens of other great breeds, too, like Prather Ranch’s Herefords. (I was born to be a farmer, and will one day find my way out of the city and onto a ranch…) These breeds have strong genetics, which mean they can survive well in their environments and don’t need heavy medication just to stay alive, as many of the breeds at factory-style farms do. The Highlands are even fine in the snow! We need many types of cattle so we can have a local beef system everywhere. There are types that like the dessert, types for mountains, types that are better foragers… Depending on the rancher’s experience and the kind of land and climate at their ranch, they can choose a breed that suites their area. Look at all these other heritage breeds, here.

Being a rancher is tough business.

Especially if you want to do things in a way that is balanced. If you raise these hearty heritage cattle breeds, assuming you have all the land you need and water, etc., the slaughter houses charge you penalties for animals that are over or under their desired size. That’s one of the key reasons why there are so many special breeds that are critical or threatened. When we eaters sit down to a steak, we’re not thinking about the extra $400 it cost the rancher to slaughter this animal because it was a different shape. It costs about ten times the amount to slaughter a grass-fed animal as it does a feedlot animal when all is said and done, according to Mac Magruder, who sells his animals to Oliveto, Golden Gate Meats, and others. It has been a great detriment to our food system to have products too streamlined. Nature is not uniform and our current food distribution system has tried its utmost to make it that way. It hasn’t been healthy for us, the animals, or the land.

Labels are confusing.

Organic means that the cattle were fed organic feed (feed that was not treated with pesticides), and were not given antibiotics. This can be, and in most cases is, feed lot beef. Organic does not mean “humane,” but there are some definitive reasons why organic labeling is important. As some ranchers I’ve talked to thus far have told me, the certification is more relevant to produce farming and the dairy industry, especially when they have hundred of acres of pasture land that then must expensively be certified organic. Humanely-Raised is a hard certification to get, but probably the best one to look for. It means the cattle weren’t ever in a feed lot, weren’t fed corn (which they can’t properly digest and makes them sick), and were slaughtered with specific, low-stress techniques. “Grass-fed, corn finished” is pretty meaningless – practically all cattle that end up on a feed lot spend their first year on pasture eating grasses, meat destined for McDonald’s burgers and Niman Ranch alike. In fact, Bill Niman has no ties with Niman Ranch beef, which is fed corn for 100+ days. “Fresh,” “natural,” and other vagaries are completely meaningless. They are marketing terms.

Basically, buying beef that is raised by conscious farmers,  fed things that don’t make them sick, that are never in feed lots, that are slaughtered in a humane-as-possible way is doable. Think of it as an exciting and delicious adventure. You certainly don’t need to eat beef every day, but eating this kind of beef will help turn around the system and make it more possible for harmonious beef to be accessible to more people.


True Grass rancherswinter is time for amazing roasts like this one with beef ribs from a cow my family doctor raisedroast beef sandwich "of the day" from Local Butcher Shopa lovely American Highland cowmoveable chicken coops are great for agricultural soil healthMe milking Dahlia, a Nubian goat with extra sweet milkcows at my favorite farmheritage breed chickens, not from hatcheriesthe Waterhouse herd of Nubian goatsRoast then stew beef shanks in the winterhappy sheepa rare species of ass, the Poitou at my favorite small farm in Pennsylvaniamy own shallots, yum