Beef Isn’t What It Was
May 17, 2010
By Steve Cornett
Steaks don’t taste as good as they used to.
That’s what Mark Schatzker thinks, and it’s what I think, too.
And, yes, I’m aware that there is more Choice and Prime beef today than there was a few years ago. But we’re agreed that USDA quality grade is not a precisely precise indicator of eating quality.
But we have our differences. I think USDA grades are the best measure we have in a commodity-graded industry. I wish we had something better, but I’m not sure we ever will.
He seems to blame corn feeding.
I am compelled to revisit Mark’s book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, because I did a short blog last week that seems to have been misunderstood. To the point that one responder accused me of not having tastebuds.
Judging by the context, the responder probably meant that to be hurtful, but in the world of modern food, a lack of the ability to taste might be regarded as evolutionary progress. It certainly would help explain poultry’s gain in market share in recent years.
I didn’t mean to condemn the book last week. I said I hadn’t read it and didn’t plan to. Not to seem close-minded. I just can’t read everything. However, based on some (less hostile) reader feedback and recommendations, I’ve ordered it.
But before it gets here, I got hold of Mark and had a nice conversation with him. I don’t feel inclined to argue tastebuddish stuff with a guy who writes about food for a living. He can probably discern the difference in, say, “a woody flavor like oak or cedar” and “a hint of blueberry” when he tastes wine. I can hardly tell the difference in the most sublime of your wines and the more subtle of your vinegars, unless I look at the label.
I’m quite highly evolved in that sense, thank you Mr. “Someone with tastebuds” responder. I happen to think I’m more typical than Mark and the sort of people who buy his books and read his magazine articles.
As it turns out, Mark and I didn’t have to argue over everything. Once Mark said “the best steak I ever tasted was grassfed, but so was the worst,” I figured we were on the same wave length. We’re both looking for good steak.
But he approaches beef steak as a culinary experience. I like to do that, too, as a consumer. But mostly, I have to approach it—as a reporter for beef producers--as something you can make a living producing. Alas, the two are not always the same.
Most of us have taken a steer to the locker and found that most of a darn cow isn’t steak at all. You get a couple of weeks of good steak and months of roasts and hamburgers--where taste is hidden behind all sorts of herbs, spices and ketchups.
Only about a fourth of the retail yield of a steer is steak—and steak is the only part of the carcass that isn’t ground or slow cooked. You can pay more for grassfed hamburger meat if you want, but I’d defy you to taste the difference once it’s stirred into spaghetti or fried and sandwiched with mustard, pickles and lettuce.
So steak palatability—flavor, juiciness, tenderness and all the stuff that makes a fine dining experience—affects only a small portion of the weight of a steer. Even if it mattered.
And, in the commodity world in which 95% of beef producers operate, it doesn’t matter. Not much. Most retail consumers in retail buy steak based on how it looks and how much it costs. We’ve trained them to expect that usually it will taste great but sometimes it will taste ok. Importantly, though, it will almost never be bad.
The same cannot be said of grassfed beef.
With the average customer, retailers have little reason to care how beef eats. The customer inclined to seek better stuff will probably have the same experience at the grocery down the road. So when the retailers buy beef from packers, they base their buying decision on grade—USDA’s official, professional, way of signaling how it looks—and price. And so it goes down the line. Packers buy cattle based on how much beef they think they’ll make and how they think the cattle will grade. So feeders base the price they pay ranchers on expected yield and grade and how much it will cost to get them finished.
And so that’s how producers make their breeding decisions.
We’re a grade, yield and price based system—heavy on yield and price, thank you. If USDA quality grades were a perfect indicator of eating satisfaction, that would be fine. But they’re not. Yield and price are darn near perfect, however—and thus provide perfect and immediate feedback.
Eating satisfaction, not so much.
We produce what we’re paid to produce, and it’s a lucky coincidence, I suppose, that the same corn that cheapens cattle back and allows for a year-round system also adds flavor most of us find irresistible.
Someday that may change. It’s not that people don’t want to produce, buy and sell good-tasting beef. Maybe we’ll find the right gene markers which, combined with the right management and feeding practices, will provide new tools to allow us to put more emphasis on affordable palatability.
When that goes mainstream, I bet it happens in an intensive management, feedyard-type environment. Rations may or may not center on corn. There may be other feedstuffs that provide better flavor or more desirable nutrition. Diet certainly impacts palatability. But in the modern economy, it will take science and it will take precise management to make it predictable.
For now, if you want to get paid for palatability in your calves, you about have to find or create a niche market. If you can get $40 a lb. for T-bone instead of the $10 a grocery might charge, it changes the math a little in favor of flavor. And there are, indeed, a lot of folks willing and able to pay the extra. But the worst of commodity fed beef isn’t that bad. It certainly out-tastes the pork and poultry competition.
I’ll admit it’s possible that Mark is right about the best beef in the world being grassfed. But, again, so is the worst. And also the second and third worst on down the line for a lot more worsts. You can’t build a business around such unpredictability. Not in today’s world.
Corn feeding cattle provides consumers a year round supply, predictability, affordability and taste that--those of us without subscriptions to Conde Nast Traveler, at least--think is great,
I’ll read the book if it’s good and get back to you.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.