May 5, 2011

Looking for the "right" beef

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I've got a ton of leftover red wines at home, and decided it was time to use it up in a stew of some sort.  I decided to challenge myself a little by braising some oxtail in red wine, instead of the "usual" bœuf bourguignon.  The real challenge, I soon realized, was in finding the right ingredient.

Ever since Froggie introduced me to the Omnivore's Dilemma, I have been appalled at the industrial machine that raises cattle in the US.  My objection to the US cattle industry extends beyond simply the fact that the cattle are raised in crowded factories, or the heavy use of antibiotics and dietary supplements to lower the risk of disease.  My biggest objection actually lies with the cattle being raised on corn.

Over the last few decades, more and more land in the US has been converted to plant corn.  The majority of the corn actually isn't for human consumption, as they wouldn't appeal to us.  The corn is actually being produced as feed and will be consumed by cattle.  This is a strange phenomenon, as when we were kids all of us were taught that cows graze on grass. No children's textbook ever said anything about cows eating corn, and ground up corn powder, no less.

The whole process of destroying grazing pastures to plant corn to feed cows and other livestock messes with the ecosystem, big time.  It has far-reaching consequences that most of us are oblivious to.  Just changing one crucial element can alter the entire food chain.

My first "enlightenment" in this area came while watching a TV program in my hotel room in Nara back in 2006.  Nara is a small city famous for its historic temples as well as for the thousands of deer roaming freely around Nara Park (奈良公園).  Tourists want to play with the cute deer, and have taken to buying senbei (せんべい) from vendors to feed the animals.  As a result the animal diet has gradually changed from just grass to a mixture dominated by senbei.

The TV program highlights how the tourists are helping to alter the local ecosystem.  Thanks to their changing diet, the deer now produces droppings with different content.  The droppings nowadays are no longer attractive to the dung beetles, who now have to find something new to eat.  The droppings also don't fertilize the land the same way it used to.  The food chain has been irrevocably altered, thanks to enterprising locals and well-meaning tourists.

But I digress... The US cattle industry is screwing up the ecosystem on a much bigger scale, so I have been looking for grass-fed beef for the last few months.  Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.

First of all, not everybody carries grass-fed beef.  Pretty much all US beef is grain-fed so that doesn't work.  A good majority of the Aussie beef I found were grain-fed, at least grain-finished for a period.  Forget Japanese beef.  That means my best bets were New Zealand, Argentinian or Chinese beef from the wet markets.

It also doesn't help that most supermarkets only stock steaks.  One mostly finds tenderloin, strip loin and maybe flank or rump.  Sometimes there are short ribs, but many of these come from US beef.  I saw oxtail at one or two places, but they were from US or Aussie wagyu... so grain-fed again.  Finally, I stopped by Great and found a whole slew of grass-fed beef, from New Zealand, Scotland and elsewhere.  I also managed to pick up some oxtail which supposedly came from Brazil.  While it wasn't labeled one way or the other, my hunch was that Brazilian cattle are mostly grass-fed.

The other alternative, of course, was to venture across the street from my apartment to the wet market.  I was told that I should be able to get oxtail from local/Chinese cattle if I reserve it in advance.  I'd probably do that next time, as local beef would certainly leave a smaller carbon footprint compared to something shipped all the way from Brazil or Argentina...

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, gotta disagree with you here. Grain fed beef is nothing new. It's how cattle have been fed in the US for, well, ever. Most of the corn that you note as being bad has been planted for some time. The entire midwest plain in Nebraska, Western Iowa, and northern Kansas has been "feed corn' since the 1870's.

Of course, taste is a personal matter. I don't like grass fed beef but to each his or her own. Even in Japan, US beef commands a pretty health premium so I suppose I'm not alone in my preference.

I think it's difficult to criticize farming or breeding methods. You can find fault at any food production that is done on a large scale. The farming of geese/ducks Foie gras is frequently criticized, as is chicken and even egg production. Not everyone can afford small-scale, free range animal products and if the entire world needed that I'm not sure such an operation would be sustainable.

Just food for thought, no pun intended.

Kian said...

peech,
I would like to add my 2 cents. I live in the UK and the majority of the beef produced here for local consumption is grass fed. Some producers have started to adopt grain feeding to finish off the animal (ie cow is fed grass up until about a month before slaughter where they are fed grain to fatten them up)

I personally am not a fan of grass fed beef because the actually 'beefy' flavour is very anaemic (for want of a better term). Its great for tartares and carpaccios and what not because of its delicate flavour but when it comes to a roast joint, nothing beats grain fed beef.

Now a bit of history lesson. In olden days (we are talking the Tudor period), cows were traditionally fed on corn. Why you ask? Have you ever seen the british weather??? Joking aside, corn was a high energy food which was cheap and easily dried which could be stored for a long time during the cold winter months. As such cows were allowed to graze during the summer pastures but for the most part would end up eating corn. :)

Anyways to get back to the point you raised, there is no easy answer to eco-friendly food. For every organic farmed salmon that is produced, the sea and its ecosystem is damaged. For every tuna that is farmed, plenty of mackerel fit for human consumption is used up. For every glass of milk you drink, somewhere a male calf is being shot. So unless you plan to go vegan, don't get too hung up over the matter :)

Peech said...

Thank you very much for your comments and "history lesson". While I have no doubt that there is a history of people feeding grain to cattle, I think it is also true that for a period of time, cattle used to graze instead of being fed grain. Cowboys wouldn't even exist if all the cattle were grain-fed, right?

This is an issue which I care about, and I admit that I am still in the early stages of learning about it. I'm trying to do my small part to make sure that my consumption encourages eco-friendly farming. It's a very complex issue and there is no clear-cut perfect solution, so I'm tackling a couple of specific items at a time.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to an article about the Brazilian beef industry and the carbon foot print it leaves when the deforestation of the rain forest is taken into account.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110304091504.htm

Peech said...

Yes I am well aware that part of the Brazilian beef industry chopped down trees in the Amazon. I believe some of the largest players also worked with Greenpeace on an effort to stop that practice.

JL said...

Hi, in reference to the book Super Freakonomics, the environment is very much better off with us eating less ruminants to begin with. The gasses from cows, sheep and the like are actually 25% more efficient as green house gasses as compared to our gasoline/petrol guzzling vehicles and coal fired power plants.

Some of us would faint at the tot of having less wonderful beef or lamb to enjoy, yet this is something to consider carefully on.

Peech said...

Beef actually consistutes a fairly small part of my diet, and I can count with both hands the number of times I shop for beef in a year...

Sheep/lamb, however, is a different matter...

Anonymous said...

i enjoy your blog. but please stick with food matters. lets not trying to justify our moral high ground too much. i think we have lost that since the day we start eating "gourmet" foods. No matter how we look at it, it's just not a good argument to have when we talking about eating good rack of lamb importing from far away lands. i think red wine does that to us. It triggers a guilty brain cell somewhere when we drink a bit too much.

Peech said...

To Anonymous/LaCie/V/whoever you are:

Until the day comes when you are paying me to write, you have not earned the right to tell me what I can or cannot write in my own blog.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is MY blog, and I'll write whatever I want and you will like it.

If you don't like what I have to say, don't read my blog. I don't need people like you who don't appreciate all the work I put in.

Salvatore_Dali said...

peech,

lol, love your outburst, I find myself saying the same stuff to some of my obnoxious readers as well ... just because its a blog, does not mean its a free for all openware for all to tinker and meddle ... bloggers who have spent a long time blogging (I am in my 6th year, averaging 1 post a day) is obviously driven by passion ... I think for Peech and me, its like a diary of sorts ... now who the f should tell us what to write in our diaries...

cheers, btw, i m discovering the wonders of this oz wine label, Two Hands ... very exiciting label, what do u think?

Anonymous said...

a typical outburst..as expected. Your self righteousness will serve you well. good luck.

JL said...

Would like to also add that Diary of a Growing Boy and Malaysia-Finance are two blogs that I consistently follow. Both are excellent reads.

Looking forward to send another bottle of wine your way, Dali. Aiming pmetal and EAH.

Peech said...

Dali,

Haven't had many chances to drink Two Hands, but I do appreciate the typical overripe, punchy Aussie Shiraz...

Thanks for your support

Salvatore_Dali said...

JL,

So, that's you... I thot it was not going to be an one off... looking forward to more complimentary wines from you.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say that corn was never fed to cattle during the Tudor period in the UK. Corn is a New World crop. It didn't exist in Europe that long ago.

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