On opening day of the Millwood Farmers' Market last year, someone was in line to get some beef from Dave Mcculough of Susie David's, who sells grass fed beef, including sausages made from the beef. This person noticed that Dave had little morsels of the sausage available for sampling, and said, "This is just like Costco." In one of my favorite comebacks of all time, Dave said, "I can do something Costco can't do. I can tell you the name of that cow's grandmother." I don't know if reminding people that the sausage they are eating comes from someone with a name and family is the best way to sell beef, but it is a great way to sum up the difference between industrial beef and local beef that you get from someone like Dave. Dave knows the names of the cows and what they have eaten.
Dave's comment is especially meaningful given the news today that the FDA has finalized their rule regarding what is allowed in pet and animal feed. I thought they had banned any cattle parts from animal feed, but it turns out it's only the spinal chords and brains of cattle 30 months old or older, and carcases more than 30 months old. I guess cows are still being fed to cows. I don't know the science of it but I find it a little disturbing.
As I understand it, and I admit my understanding is limited and I welcome any corrections, the industrial beef industry works something like this; A cattle rancher raises calfs, born at around 80 lbs, until they are close to a year old. They are then shipped off to a big feedlot where they are fattened up with a mix of grains, grass, and growth hormones. Anti-biotics are important because you've got thousands of cows coming from hundreds of locations thrown together in confined spaces of 500 to a 1,000 head of cattle per acre. After three months of intense plumping up to 1,200 lbs, the cows are then sold to a meat packer or processor who ages the carcas, cuts it up, boxes it, and sells it to grocery stores.
The upside of this arrangement is that we've got cheap beef. There is something to be said for having inexpensive sources of vital protein. I met someone on the bus who is on disability, and they use their $100 supply of food stamps to buy a $99 box of beef at Sonnenbergs, which provides them with food all month.
There are a lot downsides though. The treatment of the animals is a big concern. See my post on Chicken Dignity for more on that. The healthfulness of the meat is a big concern. And another concern is that when we buy the meat at the store there is really no way to know where that beef originated and what it was fed. Once the cow is "boxed" up, it's a market commodity. That explains why problems with one cow at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. triggered a recall of 143 million pounds of beef, going all the way back to 2006.
To put this all to the test I'm going to initiate a little contest. The first person who can find out from their traditional grocery store where the beef is from, get's a free steak from Susie David's Cattle. Here's the test; They have to be able to tell you the ranch the cow was born on, where it was fattened up, where it was processed, and what it was fed. Let me know what you find out.