By Lorrie Baumann
While cable television has been working hard for years to convince consumers that all the really great meals come from culinary school-trained chefs, many purveyors of top-quality meats say that what might help the home cook most is finding a trustworthy market with a meat department manager who knows his or her business and respects the products in the meat case.
“You need to find a brand of beef that you like,” says Bill Reed, the CEO of Estancia Beef, which produces beef in Uruguay and imports it into the U.S. market “Find a butcher who sells you quality beef.”
Clint Smithlin, the Meat Manager/Buyer at the Berkeley Bowl Marketplace in Berkeley, Calif. sells a ton of grass-fed beef, including Estancia Beef, and about 1,800 pounds of grain-fed beef each week at his company’s two stores. He says that the influence of Michael Pollan’s writing about food and the information available to consumers on the Internet in addition to current high prices for meats are collectively fueling consumer interest in grass-fed beef. “There’s a huge amount of information out there—some of it’s right and some of it’s wrong,” he says. “People have a choice, and what they’re looking for is the product that matches their choices. And generally, they’re choosing grass-fed beef because there’s a negative connotation about grain-fed beef. People have seen how the animals are just packed together, and they’re more aware now of where their meat is coming from … They’re looking to do what’s best for them as well as what’s best for the environment.”
Fortunately for consumers who want to make their own decisions about what they are putting into their bodies, there is a wider range of products available to them now than at any other time in recent history. “If you look at every other category in the supermarket—chocolate, cheese, beer—we’ve gone from two or three brands to a plethora of brands that offer different tastes, different experiences. It’s a much more exciting opportunity for the consumer to understand a world of tastes and flavors,” Reed says. “We’ve developed a system that says that more fat is better. That’s not a celebration of culture of flavor. That’s a really boring metric.”
Matching the consumer with a piece of meat that’s going to satisfy all of those goals is where trust has to come into the relationship between market and customer, Smithlin says. “People can read all they want, but there still has to be the element of trust that the beef is what the butcher says it is,” he says. “People are more knowledgeable now than ever because the price is higher than ever before, and there’s so much product on the market. Many of the grass-fed beef products out there look very, very similar. The average person has to rely on trust, on the answer he gets [from the butcher].”
“There are people who just want a good-tasting piece of meat,” Smithlin adds. “There are other people who want to make sure that what they’re eating is best for them and for the animals.”
Grain-fed beef still has its adherents among people who are accustomed to its particular taste, says Andy McIsaac, Vice President of Marketing for Pilot Brands, a major importer and distributor of grass-fed meats from Australia and New Zealand for the American market. “The flavor is definitely different. There’s some debate about it. People who are used only to corn-fed beef sometimes say that grass-fed beef has a strong flavor. My answer to that is that that’s the natural flavor of beef,” he says. “It’s the flavor that your grandfather or great-grandfather would recognize. It’s the flavor of the grass coming through, the terroir. That really does apply to meat. The flavor really does reflect the environment that the animal was raised in.”
Reed agrees that terroir is a concept that applies as much to meat as to wine. “When you think about alcohol and cheeses, you think about celebrating terroir,” he says. “The eating experience with grass-fed beef is different. Estancia beef has a little bit cleaner finish. It has a beefy flavor. It sits light in your stomach. You can eat an eight-ounce steak and feel good about it.”
Through recent American history, beef animals were raised on grass for most of their lives and then transported to feedlots for finishing with corn and grain, which add the fat marbling into the muscle tissue. And since fat carries flavor, the end product tastes more like the grain with which the animal was finished. The typical feedlot animal is finished when it’s 16 to 24 months old, depending on the feeding regime, while a grass-fed animal typically takes a bit longer to grow to slaughter weight, McIsaac says. “Grass, while very nutritious, doesn’t have as high energy content as corn and grain,” he says. “The grass-fed animals take 24 to 30 months, because they’re living a more natural life, walking around in the pasture instead of standing in the feedlot.”
Most grass-fed beef is leaner than corn-fed beef, but that’s not necessarily the case. Pilot Brands imports a wide range of beef products, including grass-fed Kobe-style beef from Wagyu cattle that meets and even exceeds USDA Prime standards. “That’s an animal that’s famous for its marbling, but even with other cattle breeds, we get a lot of beef that has good levels of marbling,” he says.
Even the most marbled grass-fed beef offers consumers a more healthful choice than grain-fed beef with equivalent marbling, because the fat in grass-fed beef has a higher ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids, with grass-fed beef having levels much closer to the levels recommended by nutritionists, McIsaac says. “There are studies coming out now that show that people who eat grass-fed beef also have higher levels of Omega-3s, so it does carry through to the people who are eating it,” he adds. “That’s on top of the fact that grass-fed beef is typically also free of antibiotics and added hormones.”
Grass-fed beefalo is another product coming onto the market that has its appeal for consumers who are concerned about the health implications of eating beef, says Mark Merrill, co-owner with his wife Linda of Ellensburg, Wash.-based Beefalo Meats. Merrill is raising animals that are a cross-breed of beef cattle and bison, producing meat that is four times leaner than regular grain-fed beef, but which has award winning flavor.
Merrill’s beefalo has been lab-tested for cholesterol and saturated fats and has been shown to have cholesterol levels up to seven times lower than regular grain-fed beef and markedly less saturated fat.
Most of Merrill’s meat is being sold in the Seattle and Portland areas and in Alaska. “We’re not in the Krogers and the Albertsons and the Safeways. We’re in the specialty stores, where it does very well,” Merrill says. “All of the stores selling this have reported no decrease in their beef sales. I think it means that people who have cut back on their beef are coming back to beefalo. Maybe it’s the people who have eaten chicken until it’s coming out of their ears, and they’re tired of it. I don’t know.”
All the experts advise that the worst thing a cook can do to grass-fed beef or beefalo is to overcook it. “When people have a bad experience with grass-fed beef, it’s usually because they’ve overcooked it,” Smithlin says. Grass-fed beef cooks about ⅓ more quickly than grain-fed beef, as do beefalo and bison. “Restaurants like it that it cooks faster, but if you’re at home and you’re grilling, you’ll want to keep monitoring it,” Merrill advises. He suggests that beefalo should be cooked hot and fast to 130 degrees. “If you can sear that meat, it’s juicier than beef, even though the fat is way less,” he says.