The discussion over whether we should eat meat foments all kinds of passion. Obviously the moral arguments have long been there, whether the focus is on what happens on factory farms or the outrage over Whole Foods going retro and selling rabbit meat. Ethics aside, the environmental facts are hard to ignore. More land is devoted to growing feed for livestock than food for humans. The global meat industry overall is a bigger polluter than the transportation sector.
Then you have the health arguments: meat consumption in the U.S. has almost doubled during the 20th century, hence the public health concerns over obesity and heart disease. Most medical professionals would advise small portions of meat occasionally has minimal, or even a positive effect, on one’s health, provided you limit those portions to four ounces (113 grams). But in an era where fast food restaurants are ubiquitous and steakhouses pitch the 16 ounce manly-man steak, it is not always easy to avoid meat.
So, should we start to view meat as a luxury?
In most of the world, it already is. Korean cuisine, for example, is notorious for its meat dishes such as bulgogi and galbi that are a common site from Seoul to Los Angeles. The reality for most Koreans, however, is that the cost of meat makes it one small part, or actually, even more of a seasoning, rather than the center of the meal. The smoky scenes over a grill we envision as Korean food is really more for a special occasion or a night on the town — the typical Korean meal is rice and soup with copious amounts of vegetables — not that different from Italy, where the average meal would consist of several platters of vegetables, a grain such as polenta or pasta, and maybe a little bit of meat.
Something got lost in translation here in the U.S., where average meat consumption was well under 100 pounds a year, or a few ounces a day, in 1920. Meatless Fridays were often the norm. That number has soared over the decades and is now on a downward trend, but thanks to factory farmed meat and increased demand, meat is still overall cheap. Well, not always — a New York Times article that appeared a few years ago pointed out a meal of beans and rice cooked at home for four people was one-fourth the cost of four fast food meals.
But what if meat were not cheap, but in fact, more of a rarity? The Tysons and Cargills of the world would have none of it, but viewing meat as an occasional food, and not as a birth right (like cheap gasoline), could do wonders for the environment, public health and even the economy.
One of the entrepreneurs riding this wave is Anya Fernald, co-founder and chief executive officer of Belcampo Meat Co., recently profiled in the New Yorker. On a farm nestled under Mount Shasta in the far north of California, Belcampo raises a bevy of different animals including grass-fed beef, game birds such as quail and partridges, and yes, rabbits. Belcampo’s butcher shops teach customers about new cuts of meat, many of which have been lost as beef moved away from the local shop to the Styrofoam tray—eliminating many cuts in the process (go to Argentina and Uruguay, and the cuts of beef you see in the shop will be unrecognizable from what you are used to seeing in North America).
Belcompo’s meat is not cheap, and Fernald has no intention to drive her prices down. Rather, as she explained to Food and Wine in another interview, she wants to show that locally produce sustainable food is profitable, while proving to consumers it is worth paying for quality — a tall order when we are used to buying boneless and skinless chicken breasts for a few bucks a pound.
But the trend is ongoing. More local butchers, such as Lindy & Grundy in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, are selling meat raised on small farms—often carving the entire animal in cuts with which we are not familiar in front of consumers—that makes the meat counter at Whole Foods look low-rent. Of course the question comes up whether this whole local/organic/free-range/cruelty-free movement is elitist. But it is also important to remember the fact that beans, whole grains, pastas, and produce are all by far cheaper pound for pound than meat, and while “food deserts” are still a problem in American cities, the average supermarket still carries plenty of nutritious cost-effective food for those of us living paycheck-to-paycheck.
The focus on changing how we look at meat, from animal welfare, to avoiding cheap GMO-grains as animal feed, to actually learning how to dress and prepare meat, is about more than cost. It’s about investing the time to preparing a meal—which takes a while if done correctly—and transforming a meal into something to savor, not just whip out quickly. Or as many slow food advocates like to say, we need to be “more connected” with our food. If these new businesses can convince consumers that spending more on meat, yet less often is a plus for our health that of animals’, we could be on the right way to righting an industry that has taken far too much of a toll on animals, people and the planet.
Image credit: Leon Kaye