Love Ice Cream? Thank the Beef Industry

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in: Soapbox

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. Every 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 contributor Lynne Curry is an independent writer based in the mountains of eastern Oregon. The author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut” (Running Press, May, 2012), she also works as a private chef and blogs about rural life at www.ruraleating.com.

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Comments

Mara
on: 6/26/12
There are too many compelling reasons, ethical and environmental, as to why eating beef, or dairy products does not make sense in today's world - no matter how expertly the story is spun.
Steve
on: 6/26/12
Isn't it interesting too that the dairy portions of food are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration and the meat by the US Department of Agriculture? As a farmer, I might add that another reason for increased cost of our grass fed beef is that, unlike large corporations, we give our cattle individual care and work very hard to keep their stress to a minimum. It is humane treatment that makes better meat along with good feed.
Charlotte
on: 6/26/12
I worked on a dairy farm for about 8 months while I was in college and we used to send most of the bull calves to slaughter and keep the girls. They were all treated well and it was fun to see them, udders swaying, run to new grass in a freshly opened pasture! I am a vegetarian and yet I ate meat on that farm because I knew the cows were happy. I ate conventional beef when I was little and remember how bad it tasted sometimes but the beef from these cows was always earthy, robust, and even slightly sweet. Their milk was equally delicious and made some damn good cheese! I thank Heaven for Beautiful Bovines!
Terra
on: 7/3/12
Thanks, Lynne, for your thoughtful essay. As you say at the beginning, eating or not eating something is a very personal decision, and people should follow their hearts and tastebuds. But it is important to recognize that no matter what you choose to eat (or not eat), you are participating in both plant and animal death with every bite. Even soy milk and tofu come to the table with a terrible burden of habitat destruction and the blood of untold millions of small animals and birds. It's neither good nor bad -- merely a fact that on this earth life comes from death, every day, and with every bite. To suppose that by not eating meat or dairy we place ourselves above the life and death (or death in life) that happens every moment of every day is to place one's head in the sand.

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