Last week I received an email from the head chef at Keen’s, an award-winning NYC steakhouse, with the following question: What makes US beef special? He is going to Japan in May to speak at a New York foods festival and will be speaking on this topic, and wondered how I would answer. Below is my reply:
Bill,I’ve thought about your question the past few days, and while I didn’t have any grand epiphanies over the weekend, I’ll share what came to mind.For me the first thing that comes to my mind, because it is our passion, is the integral part of cattle on the landscape. North America is home to some of the world’s largest intact grasslands, which play key roles in air & water quality, plant and animal species diversity, and climate change mitigation. The prairie was developed with bison and elk as a keystone species, and now cattle perform the function of the large ruminant herbivore. The US beef industry’s foundation is these grasslands. We have the ability to raise cattle, not in spite of, but in cooperation with a very important ecosystem. Grazing lands are not a single-use resource, only providing food for humans via beef. It provides a whole host of ecosystem services, something even a vegan can appreciate. Even better, this is a regenerative system. Cattle grazing, done properly, takes nothing away from the resource. There are very few industries that can make that claim.US farmers and ranchers have been ahead of the curve in adopting technology to improve the entire production cycle. From genetic selection, to feed efficiency, to environmental impact, to food safety, we have the most advanced systems in place of any nation in the world. This makes our beef more predictable, more safe, better quality (with all due respect to Kobe), and more economical than many competitors. The processors and distribution networks also have very high standards and employ technology to ensure food safety all the way to the consumer.There are some structural advantages we have as well. With diverse climate and geography, the US can grow a lot of different things. Our transportation network means we can move things (cattle and feed) to the appropriate places. The cattle industry is integrated with other food and fuel systems, utilizing byproducts from the ethanol, soybean, potato, and sugar beet industries, among others. The US farmers’ incredible ability to grow corn means we can finish as many cattle as we want on a very consistent and predictable feedstuff. This lends itself to managing cattle flow out of feed yards, providing the processors and then consumers with a steady supply. It also provides a more predictable finished product than using forage alone. That said, we have the forage resources to finish cattle to fit grass-fed markets as well. No matter the consumer preference, the US beef industry has the resource base to provide the eating experience desired.I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the people who care for the cattle. I guess I can’t speak to the traditions and values of cattlemen and women elsewhere in the world, but the for the American farmer and rancher it is a labor of love for certain. The hours are long and the business climate is filled with uncertainty in markets and weather. The skill set most farmers and ranchers have would make a lot of CEO’s blush. Marketing, finance, HR, R&D, strategic planning, operations, succession planning, investing, biology, physics, zoology…these people are the original multi-disciplinarians. Problem-solving ability develops out of necessity. “Design thinking” has been a recent trend in Silicon Valley. It’s been a way of life for generations for farmers and ranchers.In a nutshell, I think American beef is special not just because of what it tastes like, looks like, or smells like on your plate – it’s the entire process leading up to that eating experience that makes it special. It’s how cattle-raising in the US is not a zero-sum game, playing key roles in grassland ecosystems and upcycling resources thrown away by other industries. It’s the way technology is leveraged to create efficiencies and safety mechanisms to provide highly dense nutrition at an affordable price. It’s the passion that folks have in raising those cattle and caring for those resources. I think these are what make American beef special.But I also think Japanese beef is pretty special, which is why we using Wagyu and Akaushi genetics on our Angus cows. They have a great history.