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Feature Thu Nov 18 2010
The most important meal I've had this year was a box lunch from Sopraffina. No, it didn't earn a Michelin star or introduce me to sea urchin. Those are fun, exciting moments in eating this year that have been only subtly underscored by something much more serious, something which makes me uncomfortable and is much easier not to think about. So, like most people, I usually don't. But it was something that was staring me in the face in the form of a roast beef and provolone sandwich, nestled in a cardboard box resting on my knees during the lunch break at Wednesday's State of the Plate conference on sustainable meat production, the new (hopefully annual) forum put together by the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op: Where does our food come from, and what power can we possibly have over it?
It's not like these questions are groundbreaking in and of themselves. I've read The Omnivore's Dilemna and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I've skimmed through Fast Food Nation. I've seen clips of Food, Inc. CAFOs bad, local food good, organic labels confusing. It's frightening, and depressing. But there's something very different about encountering this information on my couch or in front of my TV in my spare time, and sitting in a room with people whose daily lives are very much affected by these issues. At State of the Plate, I was literally surrounded, with chefs and culinary students on one side, and sustainable ranchers and food scientists on the other. And through their words, in the form of several panels and a keynote from Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc. it also seems that there may be a glimmer of hope in the dark night of American eating.
As Kenner described in his keynote, the major shift in public consciousness about food provenance has to do with where we expect the bad stuff to be. Eric Schlosser may have brought fast-food's evils to animals, communities and public health to our collective attention, but fast-food is hardly the sole culprit. As Kenner pointed out in his speech, (and documented in Food, Inc.), there's physical danger to non-meat eaters and your average supermarket consumer, when liquid waste from CAFOs makes its way into nearby spinach, or broccoli, or peanut fields. There's also the danger of the dirt-cheap corn- and soy-based calories that lurk on our grocery store shelves and burst forth from packaged foods, due to strong government subsidies for these two key crops -- both of which are also lynchpins of the feeding practices of CAFOs, and culprits of all of the diseases these factory animals exhibit when fed things they were not evolutionarily equipped to eat. As
Bill Bob Martin from the PEW Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming noted, "We need to stop taking pride in having the cheapest food in the world," when that cheapness is subsidized by environmental ruin and ever-skyrocketing healthcare needs.
As Kenner said, "I have a long list of things that scare the hell out of me that I saw while filming Food, Inc.," itself a film that comes from a media gene pool shared not only by Schlosser, but Upton Sinclair. And fear is only half of the issue here -- the bigger concern, it seems to me, is how to move from fear to action. And the rest of the State of the Plate was more than ready to address mobilizing for change. Kenner's speech was followed by two panel discussions addressing the questions about the antidote to factory farmed flesh, sustainable meat: "What is it? What does it tastes like? Why buy it?"
Grass-fed, pastured, foraged, hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic-free -- these are basically the terms that can sum up what exactly sustainable meat is. The trick for the consumer is finding it. Reading grocery store labels (even at Whole Foods, where only 10% of the meat for sale actually falls under this rubric) is, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges. The Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op has produced a glossary to help in this department, and welcomes feedback to keep making it better. For the consumer's well-being, the PEW Center has also taken the fight to the policy level, with 24 recommended actions that would improve (i.e. start to dismantle) the most widespread practices of factory farming.
For the producer, the challenges are more multi-faceted. Chefs need to be brought into the fold, and as Paul Virant from the recently Michelin-starred Vie explained, corn-fed and corn-finished have long been the norm, as well as the acceptable marketing language on menus everywhere. (I distinctly remember the cognitive dissonance of eating at Harry Caray's after finishing The Omnivore's Dilemna, and noticing "corn-fed" as a selling point of the steaks.) He became an advocate for sustainable meat only 3 or 4 years ago, mostly because of the increased intra-muscular fat in the meat. Paul Willis of Niman Ranch Pork also noted that he'd never bought into the "other white meat" craze for breeding ever-leaner pigs to compete with chicken -- and had ended up with genetic stock and growing practices that made for better-eating, more succulent pork that chefs responded strongly to.
Restaurant ordering also has to change. The primal cuts most used in restaurant kitchens leave out much of the animal -- and byproducts go to creating everything from McDonalds chicken nuggets to pet food to feed for the next generation of livestock, putting us squarely back in the feedlot. Chris Koettke, dean of Kendall College, noted that "Recessions are really good for leaning how to use the whole animal," something that Kendall teaches its students. "Chefs know tenderloin is the most boring cut of an animal," he added.
Restaurants are a key market, since the biggest problem is the inability of small-scale producers to fit into the larger agricultural system that's come to literally dominate the landscape. Sustainably produced meat is by definition less efficient than its CAFO counterpart, since it avoids the practices that grow animals so absurdly, supernaturally quickly in feedlots and battery cages. Less efficient doesn't play well with the capitalist system, as it turns out. Bill Kurtis, CBS anchor and founder of Tallgrass Beef (which provides Harry Caray's and other restaurants), whose sonorous tone manages to make everything he says sound newsworthy, noted on the panel, "No one company can feed a nation," especially with grass-fed and grass-finished meat -- something that flies in the face of the standard business ethos.
Standing just below the "you must be this tall to sell into national chains" line on the meat production ride is difficult -- particularly for producers who get calls from converts at the reins of large businesses (or the Chicago Public Schools district), and have to turn away the business they're not big enough to handle. The first panel of stakeholders as well as the second panel of producers both noted that the demand exists (and is growing) -- to the extent that the supply can't keep up. Bill Kurtis may have summed the producer experience up best when he said, "There are about twelve places along the way where you can get screwed... It's challenging and it's interesting, and that's probably why I'm back doing the 6 o'clock news." But all of them advocated for more exposure, more consumer awareness and more opportunities to get to market.
In leaving State of the Plate, one can only hope suppliers, chefs and buyers went home with pockets full of business-cards and new ideas for the small- and mid-scale distribution that the panel producers seemed most representative of. One can hope that following the sustainable meat tasting (which I unfortunately had to miss), skeptics of the grass-fed flavor became converts, and will go on to spread the word among friends and family. One can only hope that the "humane" supermarket label does indeed make an appearance in the near future to help consumers sort out the difference between beef that was raised on a pasture with foraged, pesticide-free grass and beef that was raised in a tight pen with organically grown corn and soy -- both of which could be termed "organic" by the USDA's rules. One can only hope more producers adopt the stance of Bartlett Durand, of Otter Creek Farm and Black Earth Meats -- where humane practice applies not just to the animals, but to the workers intimately involved in their slaughter. At his processing plant, no one is allowed to do the actual killing more than once a week.
One can imagine that many of the attendees who live outside the industry charged through the door at home to announce, as I did, "We are not buying supermarket meat ANY MORE!" and then to outline the options available to slightly taken aback and bemused partners, families, and children: buying at farmers' markets, ordering direct from a local farm, or joining a meat CSA. And to the somewhat reluctant response, "Oookaaaayyyy, but I'm still going to order a hamburger when we out to dinner," we can say, that's fine! We want you to have that burger. We strongly encourage you to have that burger. Let's just make sure we get it for you at a restaurant that lets us know where it's coming from -- which seems increasingly the norm, as menus around town namecheck Mint Creek, Heartland Meats, Slagel Farms and other natural, humane purveyors. And you know what? That burger's going to be delicious. Now if only I can convince my mom to return that Butterball Thanksgiving turkey she picked up... (And in case you're wondering, that Sopraffina sandwich was pretty darn good too -- and the roast beef on it was from Organic Prairie.)