Dairy cows unavoidably produce male calves that are of no use to the dairy industry. They used to end up as veal, and in 1960, Britons ate more than 600,000 calves worth of the stuff. By the 1980s, that had dropped to less than 35,000. Ten years ago, a UK trade magazine said that “public opinion … generally regards veal as ethically somewhere between dodo omelettes and panda fritters”.
And yet, today there’s no shortage of veal and no surplus of dairy bullocks.
Time was when veal calves were kept in the dark. These days, it may be the shoppers who have helped to solve the problem of surplus male dairy calves. Behind the shift is a complicated story of moral outrage, utterly unpredictable disease outbreaks and the willingness of some strange bedfellows to work together to solve a difficult problem for the food supply system.
Banner photo of two Dutch dairy calves by Peter Nijenhuis and cover by debstreasures.
The realities of milk and beef production may not always square with our societal morality. Things are more complicated than they may seem and require second and third level thought and problem solving to come up with worthwhile solutions. I remember outcry when I was younger and knew that things had shifted, but haven’t heard any follow up stories until now. Glad to know that things seem to have reached some sort of equilibrium that seems generally acceptable.
There is an unfortunate stigma attached to frozen meat, a widely held assumption that it’s inferior to fresh meat. This prejudice runs deep enough that fast-food chain Wendy’s tried to capitalize on it in 2008 with a promise that its burger meat was “Always fresh, never frozen.”
Most dilettante foodies I know probably regard frozen beef as an acceptable substitute only when fresh is unavailable. Sure the fresh must be grass-fed, dry-aged, properly hung and all that – but mostly it must be fresh, not frozen. However, unless your climate is wonderfully mild, that grass-fed beef is going to be eating something else over the winter, and that’s not great for the meat. Ari LeVaux, a syndicated food writer, reckons that except at the end of the growing season, when the animals have just finished feasting on lush pastures, well-frozen good beef is a far better option than fresh. When we spoke last week, I started by asking Ari why most people – foodies included – have such a poor opinion of frozen beef?
In fact, I’d say there is a general misconception about “freshness”. There was a rage for fresh pasta in England a while ago. And to me it was unfathomable. Good dried pasta is so superior to the slimy industrial stuff that it is almost another food. Sure, fresh often is good. But with foods that can be preserved in other ways, and have been, a good product properly prepared is often superior.
As for the nutritional composition of grass-fed versus conventional beef, there clearly is a difference. A mega-review by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that milk and meat from grass-fed animals has lower total fat than conventional, but the fat is higher in what might loosely be termed “good” fats, things like omega–3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid. On the other hand, the evidence for health benefits is more mixed. Some studies on animals and people have shown benefits, but they are by no means absolutely conclusive.
So on its own, better nutrition is perhaps not enough reason to seek out grass-fed beef. On the other hand, if omega–3 fats are what you really want, you can do much better eating oily fish. But hey! It can’t hurt, and eating great beef less often is a win in so many other areas.
After listening to this I’m assuredly going to have to look around online for a proper purveyor of frozen beef now. I’ve read several of the studies on the general health benefits of grass fed beef over cornfed, which it terrifically unnatural in the first place.
Frozen meat from the summer slaughter season for the winter months may be just the ticket to a higher quality product. (Though admittedly, they’re right on taking the proper precautions for the freezing/thawing processes as this can make all the difference.)
I find it interesting that the economics of the situation don’t help to better drive this process in the market. While the podcast mentions companies like Whole Foods attempting to educate their customers, I certainly haven’t come across this idea previously, and I typically go out of my way to consume this type of information.
The tough part of the process is determining when the product was frozen, as I’m sure many processors may just as readily freeze their excess winter slaughter. I checked in a local high end grocery store today and found a few types of frozen grass fed beef, including one from New Zealand, but the packaging didn’t indicate when it was frozen or even by whom in the process. There was only an obscure future date which I could only take to be either a “sell by” or “consume by” date as it wasn’t otherwise marked. If purveyors want to improve their position in the market, providing this type of data would be helpful, though I suspect it’s more in their interest not to indicate anything at all unless bulk purchasers and distributors like Whole Foods pressure them to do so. Perhaps the majority of the demand in the market (and specialty pricing) stops at the words “grass fed”?
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