By Lynne Curry
When I started writing a cookbook on grass-fed beef more than two years ago, I never imagined I'd become a spokesperson for carnivorism. Nor did I expect "Pure Beef" to be published during a searing national debate over the ethics of meat eating kicked off by the New York Times in April and promulgated on the Huffington Post and by food writer Michael Ruhlman into the summer.
Naturally, my editor, my agent and my publicist each prodded me to join the fray and stake my claim. I quietly resisted. Admittedly, I was petrified by the vitriol in the opinions (and reader comments) expressed online, but I had a more deep-seated reason: I have long believed that eating is one of the most intimate choices we make in life. What we put into our bodies borders on the sacred, and to eat or not to eat meat is as personal and entrenched as religion.
When two advance reviewers called my book a "case for the responsible carnivore" and "conscience salving" for meat eaters, I could no longer hide behind my fears and philosophical beliefs. By publishing a book on beef I had entered, naively yet tacitly, into one of the great unwinnable debates of our times.
I could not bring myself to reiterate the facts and arguments that Joel Salatin, Nicolette Hahn Niman and others have so remarkably shared. Instead, I challenged myself to reframe the discussion, to find common ground on this issue. What I settled on was ice cream.
The bond between milk and beef
Ice cream -- that most joyful, universally adored and uncontroversial of foods. Throughout my years as a vegetarian, pescatarian and later flexitarian, I never questioned the place of ice cream in my diet. Ice cream has always seemed like a universal right. Who would suggest that everyone everywhere stop eating ice cream?
Only after researching my book did I understand how industrialized agriculture divorced the natural connection between milk and meat. In pre-World War II America, families kept a cow as a provider of both types of life-sustaining foods. Once the cow could not produce another calf and went dry, she was slaughtered to feed the family. Today, milk and meat hardly seem like they come from the same species moving as they do through two distinct food supply chains.
The milk churned into your favorite French vanilla, blackberry or salted caramel ice cream comes from more than 9 million cows on America's dairy farms. Each year each cow bears a calf, and roughly 4 million of them are male bull calves -- misfits of the industry. Nearly all of these Holstein, Jersey and other dairy cross-breeds are raised and finished in feedlots to become retail cuts of beef. Not that you'll ever see them labeled.
Once the mother cows' milk production drops -- conventionally within six to seven years of yields reaching nearly 20,000 pounds a year -- they, too, move into the beef supply. Dairies sell off spent but healthy cows to the commodity market. I learned that 17% of all ground beef sold comes from culled dairy cows, but this simple fact -- that milk cows become meat -- is treated like a dirty secret.
The meat of the debate
The point is that everyone who eats ice cream -- or butter, cheese, yogurt, or any other variety of dairy -- participates in beef production by the inescapable facts of nature. If you are concerned about animal welfare, ethical and ecological implications of how we make meat, what can you do?
First, stop condemning the meat itself. Beef, a nutrient-dense food best consumed in moderation, has become demonized largely because of the highly industrialized production system. Four corporations control 90% of a market whose efficiencies and massive scale maximize profits.
We now apprehend all the ways this model is unjust to animals and workers, detrimental to soils, waterways (and therefore public health thanks to antibiotic resistant diseases) and wildlife. The industry is dependent on cheap feed, fuels and fertilizers. Most people agree that it is unsustainable in more ways than one.
The great debate I wish we were having is not whether or not we should be eating meat, but how we should be producing it.
Second, support the alternative: humane and organic pasture-based production methods ranchers are practicing in every state in the country. These beef producers operate outside the commodity system to raise, process, market and distribute their beef on their own or in collectives for sale at farmers markets and grocers, through buying clubs and on the Internet.
The centralized beef production, processing and distributions systems built over the past 50 years do not accommodate renegades. On top of the financial risk, these independent ranchers struggle to find USDA-certified slaughtering facilities within reach that will accept low volumes so that they can legally retail their beef. (This is the principal reason their prices are higher.) They take the hard way out because they know that there is a better solution -- for their families and communities, their lands and animals, our health and environment.
The Environmental Working Group, the Animal Welfare Approved and the National Resources Defense Council are some of the organizations throwing their weight behind these ranchers through research, fact-based information and advocacy. They are seeking to change the how for the betterment of all.
Even if you never buy or eat a morsel of meat, you can support the work that these groups do to find real, sustainable and achievable solutions to our common -- and very personal -- need to eat. I, for one, am putting my trust in them. If you like ice cream, then you should, too.
Photo: Lynne Curry at a beef cattle ranch in Oregon. Credit: Anna M. Campbell
Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Lynne Curry is the author of "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut" released in May. She lives with her family in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon.