I’ve known George Faison for 25 years or more; he was a co-founder of D’Artagnan and is now a co-owner of Debragga and Spitler, a New York meat wholesaler that’s been doing business since 1924, and a main supplier to many of the city’s best restaurants. This is a letter George sent late last week to a well-known chef, and one he’ll be sending to others. (It’s worth noting, if for no other reason than to answer the inevitable question, which I asked myself, that George doesn’t only sell naturally-raised meats – he sells industrially-produced stuff as well. But he’s on a campaign to persuade the chefs who insist that’s what they want to change their minds, and I know he’d like to supply only the right stuff.) I’ve changed nothing except misspellings.
This note explains my thinking about why I believe that you should be pursuing clean agricultural ingredients as standard practice in your restaurants.
Our food supply system is broken. Badly. 80 percent of the U.S. beef production is controlled by four industrially producing companies. Three of these companies also process 60 percent of the nation’s pork. Too much chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to produce our crops. The variety of crops produced around the world has diminished dramatically in the last 60 years. There are now nearly 5,000,000 fewer American farmers since the 1930s.
Yes, this industrial structure has significantly lowered the monetary cost of the food we consume. But this is misleading. While the amount of money we spend on food has declined, the quality and nutrition supplied by this food has deteriorated. As a country, about one third of all adults are obese, and since 1980, the incidence of obesity has tripled among children ages 2-19.
In 1960, we spent 18 percent of our take home pay on food and 5 percent on health care. Now we spend 9 percent of our take home pay on food and upwards of 17 percent on health care. According to Michael Pollan, during his Oprah interview in February, “We spend less of our money on food than any other people at any other time on this earth.” What’s wrong with this picture?
People have gotten used to eating cheap food and it is killing them. There is little flavor and little nutrition and we eat more and more, because so much of it has been engineered to trigger consumption (salt and sugar have been proven to be addictive, like nicotine in cigarettes).
Regarding meat and poultry, here is what drives me to promote naturally raised meats.
By clean I mean the following:
1. Antibiotic free: Over 70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to the animals we eat. 70 percent! The practice is banned in Europe. The antibiotics are fed to animals housed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). They are so densely housed that they get sick. The producer gives them feed treated with antibiotics so they won’t get sick. Hogs are crammed into concrete and metal pens with grates that allow the excrement to fall through. Chickens are packed into closed houses where the lights are turned on four times each day to make them eat more often. Conditions like these would make any animal sick.
The key problem when antibiotics are overused is that it can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is a great threat to our country’s health. In fact, there is an antibiotic-resistant Staph bacteria called MRSA that is definitely impacting employees working on hog CAFOs. According to the CDC, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that in 2007, 18,650 people died of MRSA, whereas approximately 16,000 died of AIDS. Additionally, JAMA reported that MRSA was also responsible for upward of 94,000 life threatening illnesses.
2. Hormone Free: Hormones are given to dairy cows to produce more milk and beef cattle to accelerate weight gain. The goal is obviously to maximize production in the shortest amount of time. Hormones are hell on dairy cows, causing them to lactate practically round the clock, which is abusive, and the quality impact on beef cattle is huge. Forty years ago, Prime grade made up 6 percent of all beef carcasses graded. Today, that percentage is 1.5!
According to the owner of a very large cattle processor who is well respected in the beef industry here in the U.S., the reason for the reduction in cattle quality is directly related to the use of hormones. The cattle grow quicker but they put on more water weight. The amount of time required for the muscle to develop and the fat to intersperse during grain feeding is shortened by 35-50 percent thanks to hormones. The result is cheaper cattle for the most part. But it is absolutely less flavorful. And there is less highly marbled Prime cattle rising to the top, resulting in dramatically higher prices for Prime beef over choice.
Commodity cattle that are fed hormones are moved to a feedlot after as little as 9 months. There, they are given antibiotic-laced feed to keep them healthy while they adjust to a largely grain diet (that’s like you moving from a salad-based diet to an all-cheese diet overnight). These cattle are intensely fed for 75-100 days. Very efficient. Very cheap.
Naturally raised cattle are on pasture for 16-20 months before transferring to a low density feedlot where they are fed a mixed diet (dried grass/grain for 200 days in a naturally raised, clean program; 400 days for a wagyu program). It takes a lot longer to raise clean, healthy cattle, and this is why they cost more. But they taste a lot better and they marble better. Our naturally raised, clean beef program typically grades over 20 percent Prime, and that’s a lot more than commodity at 1.5 percent.
But the impact of hormones in our food system is becoming increasingly controversial. The practice is banned in Europe. The use of hormones in our food supply has been linked to the earlier onset of menstruation in young women in western societies over the last 40 years. (These dates coincide with the introduction of hormones as an additive/growth stimulant in dairy and beef cattle.) The issue with earlier onset of menstruation is that it is associated with a vastly greater incidence of cancer in women, breast and cervical. That is just one reason why many of our retail customers are ordering DeBragga’s grass fed or naturally raised beef.
So why does this matter to you? Maybe it doesn’t. But from where I sit, I see more and more of our chef/restaurateurs making the switch to naturally raised meats and poultry for the reasons I describe above, and more (like animal welfare, for example). We know that a greater and greater number of our clients, especially in New York City, are looking for these ingredients, even expecting us to be offering them. As an industry, restaurants are on the cutting edge. Not just in culinary technique and quality, or décor and service, but in the quality and production standards used to make the ingredients in our recipes.
Yes, naturally and humanely raised meats cost more. Maybe you can counter the higher monetary cost by offering smaller portions. Or expect chefs to charge more money for it.
I do not think the solution to our food supply problem is to use poorer quality ingredients because they cost less money. In the long run, the true cost of these meats is so much higher.