Mark Schatzker, whose book "Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef’’ I have been reading and blogging about, takes issue with some of my points, and it seems only fair to grant him the same soapbox.
I have, by the way, made it through his book. It's quite readable, but I suggest he has a bias against grain feeding and feedlots. For some reason, he seems to think their smell is part of the best-taste issue. More on that at another time.
Let me begin by thanking Steve for revisiting this topic. The Internet, as we all know, is full of angry types these days, and Steve isn’t one of them. Thanks for taking the high road and inviting me to join a civilized discussion, something that seems to be all too rare these days. People will never agree on everything, but if we can discuss things in a respectful manner, we’re all the better for it.
First off, I would like to say that I’m not resolutely against all feeding of corn. I ate and enjoyed many excellent grain-fed steaks during the course of my travels. In fact, I ate one last night. It came from a farm in Connecticut called Greyledge and it wasn’t grass-fed. It was “light-grained,” which is to say the 100% Angus cattle (and by 100% Angus, I mean actual registered Angus, not “predominantly black hided” cattle of uncertain genetic origin) live on pasture and receive about 4 lb. a day of oats, barley, corn and soy. Greyledge waits a little longer to slaughter—around 24 months. The steak was tender, buttery, very juicy, and it had serious flavor. In other words, it tasted the way a good steak is supposed to taste. Take a look at the marbling. Definitely upper 2/3 Choice, if not Prime.
We’re not producing many of these steaks in North America these days. The problem, as you point out, is yield. We use hormones, antibiotics, genetics and beta-agonists to get cattle fat as fast as we can. They’re too young to have any flavor. The meat is more like veal than it is like beef. The only thing you can really say for it is that it’s cheap.
Furthermore, we’ve hybridized, genetically modified and processed corn to the point that it’s just bland starch now. It’s nothing like the corn of, say, 50 years ago. I was in Mexico recently and ate tortillas made from blue and red corn. The flavor was unbelievable. I wonder what beef finished on that kind of corn would taste like. Would yield suffer? I’m certain the answer is yes. But as Temple Grandin told me, yield is the enemy of quality.
I also agree wholeheartedly with Steve that there’s a lot more to a cow than just steak. I learned this lesson all too well when I raised my own heifer, an experience I recount at length in Steak. I didn’t get her fat on corn. I let her out on pasture and supplemented her with apples, carrots, acorns and nuts. She sure was tasty. And one of the best things about that heifer was the ground beef.
Have you ever found that your spaghetti sauce seemed a bit thin tasting? Or that your chili didn’t quite have the flavorful punch that it ought to? Does it seem odd that we unload the entire condiment section onto our burgers to make them palatable? The reason is that our ground beef, like our steaks, has about as much flavor as a glass of tap water. So on this point, I resolutely disagree with Steve. There is more flavor in grass-fed ground beef (and, to a lesser degree, good grain-fed ground beef). When you use it in sauces, burgers, meatloaf, etc., the difference is unbelievable. It’s very simple: If you cook with beef that has more flavor, the food you cook will have more flavor.
Steve states: “We’ve trained [retail consumers] to expect that usually [beef] will taste great but sometimes it will taste OK. Importantly, though, it will almost never be bad.” I think that’s a wildly optimistic appraisal of beef quality. The truth is more like we’ve trained consumers to eat beef that has no flavor whatsoever. Year by year, decade by decade, beef has lost its character. We smother it in goopy steak sauces or we sprinkle on seasonings that make potato chips seem subtle by comparison. Is it any surprise Americans are eating 20 lb. less beef per year than in the 1970s? (And don’t tell me it’s because of health concerns. Doritos sales are doing just fine…)
As I said in my book, the very worst steak I have ever eaten was grass-fed. But Steve is wrong to state that there is an overall consistency problem with all grass-fed beef. It’s simply a matter of finishing the cattle properly. Tallgrass Beef is a Kansas-based company that raises and sells only grass-fed beef. It slaughters about 80 head of cattle every week. More than half of their beef grades Choice or better. Two percent grades Prime. That’s about the same percentage as commodity beef, if I’m not mistaken. And their cattle don’t get so much as a kernel of corn.
Some consumers, of course, care only about one thing: price. If they’re happy buying blade-tenderized or brined steak for the change in their pocket, so be it. These days, a lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet, and I’m not suggesting they run out and buy a $40 ribeye. But let’s remember how many niche branded programs there are — CAB, Laura’s Lean, Sterling, Creekstone, Coleman Natural, Niman Ranch, etc. Why all the high-end brands? Because there are lots of consumers willing to pay money for better beef.
This brings us to my basic problem with the commodity beef system: it has no interest in quality. There is no line item on the balance sheet called flavor. When beef is about price per pound, it turns into a race to the bottom. If the feedlot next door can increase margins 2 percent by implanting hormones, treating cattle with beta agonists, or crossing good breeds with big breeds, then the choice is simple: do what they’re doing or go out of business.
That’s why there are only four big packers. That’s why feedlots keep getting larger and larger. The beef that is produced is going steadily down in quality, and a growing number of consumers have had enough.
And that, in short, is why I wrote my book. I wanted to understand this mysterious and delicious meat we call beef. I think it’s an exciting time for the cattle business. Consumers are demanding more choice and they’re learning there’s more to great beef than USDA quality grade. Small ranchers and farmers are making decent wages raising a value-added product. The future promises to be delicious."