Where Does Your Beef Come From?

The image above is what a typical cattle feedlot looks like from Google Earth. While this captured image depicts the last few months of a steer's life, the image only conveys so much information. To witness a feedlot first hand leaves you with a greater understanding of just where that fast food hamburger, or that restaurant New York strip steak came from. This feedlot is a “finishing school” of sorts for cattle before they go to the slaughter house and become steaks and ground beef. Cattle from various ranches located all over the country are brought to these feedlots to be fattened up with a diet consisting of corn, cereals and any number of animal byproducts deemed too unfit for human consumption. Added to this mix of feed are varying quantities of antibiotics in order to keep the cattle from becoming too ill to be approved by the USDA. The antibiotics are a necessary element in the lives of these animals, which are confined to these pens for months at a time, for that brown earth you see in the image is not actually earth, but mostly feces produced by the cattle.

You may be asking what the point is? Not just to the information provided above, but why is it relevant? In this blog, my aim is to point out two vastly different styles of raising cattle for the beef industry and allow you to determine which particular philosophy seems to make the most sense for you and your purchase decisions when shopping at the grocery store. What are my qualifications in providing this information? I’ve worked for over 15 years as a chef. I’ve had the opportunity to work in restaurants in San Diego, Beverly Hills, Aspen, Sacramento, New York, San Francisco, Napa, and here in Oregon. I’m a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and I’ve been responsible for developing relationships with cattle ranchers and beef vendors during my tenure as a chef. I owned my own restaurant for a number of years in California and some of my best customers were the ranchers who supplied the very beef I served. During this process of what I would call enlightenment about the beef industry, I developed some rather strong opinions about not just the beef I serve in restaurants and make available to my customers in the grocery store where I work now, but to food in general. Over 15 years, I’ve come to a deep understanding as to what good food is and what it is not. I’ve realized that over the last 50 or so years, we have lost sight of what it means to have really healthy nutritious food. This blog will attempt to provide just the tip of the iceberg by using the cattle industry as an example of what I mean by that statement.

In order to make sense of the feedlot example in the first paragraph of this discussion, I need to provide a little brief history of the beef industry. Back during the Great Depression, our country had many agricultural programs implemented by FDR and his New Deal policies. There was a large glut in the market of corn, and in order to hold the prices steady, the government encouraged the beef industry to buy up the excess and use it to feed cattle, never mind the fact that corn is not the best feed for cattle. Being ruminant animals, they prefer legumes and grass which they then pass through their four stomachs and break down into various essential nutrients. In order to make the process easier to facilitate, large feedlots were created in cities such as Des Moines, Kansas City and Chicago. Cattle ranchers were able to sell their herds to the owners of the feedlots, who in turn fattened the cattle on corn and they were able to increase the bulk of the animals considerably before sending them to the slaughter houses. Eventually this fattening process came to be known as “marbleing” the meat, and a grading system was established in order to separate out the top quality beef from the rest. We see today beef labeled prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner. Rarely will any consumer see beef labeled anything below select as the remainder usually gets placed into items like animal food. Prime beef is usually what the larger steakhouses like Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris sell. Thus with this marriage of beef and corn a new way of marketing steaks was born, and the American palate has become accustomed to the flavor ever since.

But there were those individual cattle ranchers who remember what life was like before the massive feedlot owners began demanding more and more cattle and offering less and less for them. They remembered the days when they would be able to raise their cattle on grasslands for upwards of three years before taking them to market and fetching a fair price for them. They reminisced to their children and grandchildren about the “good old days” when one animal was worth more then, than three are today. They talked about the days when they were able to thrive in the industry as opposed to struggling today while watching the feedlot owners make all the profit. Thus was born the beef cooperative among cattle ranchers. These were the children and grandchildren who paid attention to their forefathers and determined that there was a better way to provide healthy and flavorful beef to the consumer all the while bypassing the feedlots where these animals were fed improper diets, antibiotic laden feed and growth hormones to make them grow even faster to satisfy an ever demanding population. These cooperative ranchers realized they had strength in numbers and began to organize themselves. They hired meat fabricators to properly prepare their free range beef for market and they hired sales representatives to go into restaurants and grocery stores to promote and sell their products. They received USDA approval and took their high quality beef to the market.

Today there has been a renaissance of sorts in the beef market, but there is still a long way to go. Fast food restaurants like Burgerville are becoming pioneers when they purchase beef produced by these cooperatives and refuse to purchase feedlot, mass produced beef. The grocery stores who offer organic high quality beef at competitive prices are providing a valuable service to the end consumer. With this new cottage industry, consumers have been able to reconnect with the origins of their food and that is a very important thing in this day of mass produced foods. People are becoming more cognizant of what they eat and the quality of their food, and they realize that good food should not be just for a select few who can afford it. Good food, quality food needs to be available to everyone.

The image below is of a typical ranch which supplies beef you see in many local grocery stores and restaurants. These cattle will never see a feedlot, nor will they ever see a syringe filled with growth hormoses aimed at their backsides. They will be fed a proper natural diet, which in turn leads to more complex and flavorful meat. Based on the two images shown in this blog post, where would you rather your next meal come from?

Posted by Charles Wilcox