Out to Pasture

February 13, 2009 06:56 AM


Steve Cornett

A little-noticed study from the Irish food safety commission last year found men on the island "are eating too much beef and women are eating too little."

That might be the case in your family, too, and it just might be because women watch too much "Oprah" on TV. Too many of them think beef is a "bad" food. That is one reason iron deficiency is rampant among women, and especially teenage girls, not just in Ireland but in the U.S. as well.

And men? Judging from my circle of friends, men think it's a "bad" food too, but, to our credit, we care more that it tastes so good. The sad truth, though, is that beef isn't a bad food at all. It's just had bad press. It's kind of the Sarah Palin of foods, one could argue: I know I shouldn't, everybody says I shouldn't, but darn it, I like her.

But that doesn't change the fact that most Americans think they eat too much beef. And they would eat less if it didn't taste so good.

A couple of quick notes. Oprah's current "weekly eating plan" set by her nutritionists includes no red meat. At the same time, she admits in her blog that her "drug of choice" is potato chips.

Since I first interviewed an "antibeef" nutritionist in 1976—when USDA first got involved in telling people what to eat—per capita beef consumption in the U.S. has fallen by more than 25%.

This has happened despite the fact that every beef producer in the world knows that beef is good for you. It has happened despite the fact that beef is, just like the checkoff science says, a grand source of protein, B vitamins, zinc and the iron that so many women are missing in their diets.

And, if you take the paltry (by men's standards) 3 oz. per day advice from USDA, our per capita consumption of beef could be 3 oz. times 365 days, or 68 lb. versus the 64 lb. to 65 lb. we actually get and nobody would have to feel guilty.

The problem, for those who see it that way, is that some people—and we know who we are—eat more, uh, sometimes much more, than 3 oz. and some eat less. Many readers of this column, including the writer, fit into the former category, of course. Many of us don't even know a vegetarian, though we've heard of them.

But let us face something. Beef producers are different. We have a product to sell and to feel good about. There is a lot of good to be said about beef, but there is more bad actually being said.

So beef gets a bum rap. So what's new?

Not much. But I'm not sure everybody in the business realizes how important these issues are. It looks like we're about to open up the beef checkoff, which has been the industry's only tool in mitigating the damage done by the tricephalic juggernaut of animal rights, overblown and under-understood diet and health concerns and the trendy belief that cattle production belongs on the cost side of the environmental cost to benefit ratio.

The checkoff has to have more money. But one can already see a bunch of little turf wars beginning, and one can only hope the dukes and earls in all of the little turfdoms will keep the big picture in mind.

We are probably never going to be able to turn the domestic beef image completely around. Beef has become a guilty pleasure—one that chic people avoid.

That may change someday. If it does, the change will be based on clearer science than we have at hand. It will take checkoff money to find that science and it will take checkoff money to spread the new word.

Meanwhile, nobody is telling people in China to eat less beef. Their per capita consumption—which the Foreign Agricultural Service says grew by 32% between 2001 and 2006—is more than 12 lb. per year. In India, per capita consumption is at 3 lb. per year.
There are 2.4 billion people in those two countries. If you could get them to eat 8 lb. of beef per year, they would consume more beef than U.S. consumers now.

These are people who don't have Oprah telling them to eat less. Rather, they have bellies telling them to eat more and eat better. They will be the salvation of the beef industry. What a mistake it would be to let this beef checkoff get away.

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