A Letter that all Chefs (and Anyone Who Eats) Need to Read

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.


Hey Chefs:

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.

George


[1] Hendrickson, Mary and William Heffernan. “Concentration of Agricultural Markets.” Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri. April 2007.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[3] Journal of the American Medical Association, October 17, 2007.

[4] Sellman, Sherrill, “The problem with precocious puberty,” Nexus Magazine, Vol 11, 3, April – May 2004.

Posted in Slow Food

24 Comments

  1. Lanette Higham said...

    I have been trying to figure out what I can eat as a poor person. I have been experimenting with soy beans..I have yet to find a great way to use them. I keep trying. Roasting them is the best I have been able to come up with. Do you have any good ideas or tips on soybeans you want to share?

  2. Lina Marcoppido Reid said...

    I completely agree with you. In Canadan we are lucky enough to have hormone free milk enforced by law and even 6 months ago I would have thought that this very problem was just an "american" thing but lately it is an epidemic! It is cheaper to eat junk! Then it is to eat healthy! Thank you for being on board with this issue and speaking out about this!

  3. escribble said...

    all the more reason to reduce our meat intake all around! Going to try your sesame noodles with spinach tonight! Thx Bittman!

  4. Margaret Guerrero Buckley said...

    Thank you for sharing this letter to Chefs [and those who like to eat!] from George Faison. I am so passionate about this perspective myself. I am proud that my 4 grown children are not merely following in my footsteps with regards to caring about and practicing good, responsible nutrition… they are standing on my shoulders- teaching me things about food and industry practice! How do I share this letter on Facebook, for my friends & family who are not on Twitter?? Thanks! :)

  5. Margaret Guerrero Buckley said...

    LOL. I just saw the ‘post comment to Facebook’ link… too late! Already hit "comment!"

  6. Margaret Guerrero Buckley said...

    LOL. I just saw the ‘post comment to Facebook’ link… too late! Already hit "comment!"

  7. Margaret Guerrero Buckley said...

    This is a great letter about how we need to eat; how we need to think about food, and how we are either good or bad stewards of the animals, crops, land, and waters, that feed us.

  8. Derek Davis said...

    keep on pushing george, i will too.

  9. jameswindsor said...

    If people learned how to cook vegetables and legumes, or even how to cook with small amounts of quality meat, it would definitely be cheaper than ‘junk’. I can feed my family of six for under $10, it tastes great, is healthy, and isn’t hard to do.The issue in my mind has less to do with chefs at high end restaurants that cater to the rich. It’s the masses who are not a part of any food culture other than the golden arches, and the people who feed their kids from cans and crappy frozen pizzas. Those are the people you need to reach if you want to make a difference.People are lazy, don’t like change, and don’t want to try new things. If I had a dime for every parent who told me they ‘tried’ but little Billy just ‘won’t eat’ vegetables I’d be a very rich man.I live in an affluent suburb – I looked after my neighbour’s kids yesterday, and asked him what types of food they’d eat for dinner. He said they’d eat ‘chips and sausages’. I roasted potato wedges in the oven, and the kids looked at them and said ‘what are those?’. They had never eaten a potato before – at least not one that didn’t come in a red cardboard pocket or a frozen french fry bag. They couldn’t even identify it. And by any standard, these are ‘rich’ kids. Imagine the challenge for families where both parents work 10 hour days and the kids are in day care?

  10. Mike Avery said...

    @Lanette – there are (almost) always options. We were active in a California based food bank’s "feed yourself for what people on foodstamps get". We eat very well and we were already below the target amount.So, what’s your budget and how many people do you need to feed? What other parameters are you trying to work within? Vegetarian? Vegan? Varied diet? All are achieveable on a food stamp level diet. All organic? Not so likely.Other options? A friend with no budget fed her family by dumpster diving at a local grocery store. When there was more than they could eat – which happened often – they shared, dried, froze and/or canned the excess.

  11. Chris Alward said...

    A butcher explains why cleanly raised meat costs more (and why you should still eat it). Read this if you’ve ever wondered why, and if you have kids (especially girls!). Note that hormones in dairy cows are banned in Canada, but the rest rings just as true here as in the US.

  12. Conosci Il Tuo Pasto said...

    Hi, my name is Veronica Pecorella and work on a project of certification for restaurants called Conosci il tuo pasto alias Know your meal, which aims to restore the linkage between restaurants and quality agricultures (organic, traditional and local products, slow food presidia etc). The project starts from Italy from the Mediterranean Institute of Certification – IMC) and now we are working in the Mediterranean countries starting from Lebanon. A Lebanese friend gave me this link and I really would like to publish this letter in the blog http://www.conosciiltuopasto.it ! Waiting for your kind feedback veronica

  13. Simón de Swaan said...

    This is simultaneously frustrating and encouraging to read. Frustrating because we’re so hell bent on having cheap food without thinking about the consequence. And yet encouraging because chefs are taking a stance and collectively beginning to say no to big agribusiness. Let’s just hope that that’s enough to get agribusiness to change their ways and start selling consumers healthier alternatives.

  14. Janneke Heitlager said...

    A great initiative, also to remind people that eating meat is a luxury; less is more !

  15. Janneke Heitlager said...

    A great initiative, also to remind people that eating meat is a luxury; less is more !

  16. CraftyFarmGirl said...

    Bravo. A well written letter that carefully and thoughtfully explains why all of us should be concerned about what is happening to our food system here in America. That 80% figure regarding the beef supply was staggering. If people did more research into the horrific conditions those poor animals lived in (if you can call it living) in factory farms they’d never want to eat the stuff again.

  17. Marie Tyler Wiley said...

    Boys & Goils…let’s try this on for size (no pun intended)…for me…it all boils down to a healthier life style and most importantly my 4 children. To think that any chef is thinking otherwise indicates to me that they shouldn’t be serving. Or certainly..I don’t want to go into their restaurants. I made a conscious decision 5 yrs ago to rid my family of all the crap our government has allowed to go into our food supply, namely antibiotics & growth hormones. You should do the same! Yes, it cost more and I have learned to cook with less meat…beefing up on legumes, quinoa etc. In fact if any of your with real influence could change one thing…it would be the menu at McDonald’s…imagine a menu spiked with grilled natural meats over a bed of salad sprinkled with nuts, dried cranberries and your choice of goat cheese etc. We are the only country who has a major obesity problem due to our food. (btw…I’m totally overweight).Now when I eat out at nice restaurants…I’m bummed when they’re serving potatoes that taste like a salt lick…why not combine the pot’s with cauliflowers? Or sweets? Healthy can be tasty. Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to find those recipes. And while we’re at it…can we please lesson up on the salt that you use to cook? I mean really! Also how about HEALTHY breads…not the starch laden salt mines. Wholesome healthy bread if you are going to serve it at all!

  18. Marie Tyler Wiley said...

    ps. George…I am a fiend for your lamb sausage & black truffle butter. Shame on you for having something so incredibly delicious! :)

  19. John Bell said...

    Thank you, Mark for highlighting this increasing problem. What happens in America, happens in the UK eventually. Cheap food now, will be paid for dearly later on!

  20. betsyhunt said...

    This is an excellent article. I am so excited. I have been eating what I call "clean food" all my life. I have been so caught up in this issue, I feel like I’ve been annoying most everyone around me because of my standards. I feel strongly about what George wrote…and now there are the statistics to back up what I had suspected for 30 years. Just this morning I was chatting with someone about the "junk" that is served in many restaurants. As I am 5 days away from opening a "clean food" restaurant at the Lawrenceville Inn in Lawrenceville, NJ, she asked, "why don’t more chefs use hormone free, organic, local ingredients?" I replied…"it’s too expensive…and they don’t care." I have vacillated over the past few months whether to open or not, because of the incredibly high cost of ingredients…and have decided that, I WILL open, and I WILL provide "clean" alternatives to the typical American menu…EVEN if my profit margin is low. Because I believe there are enough PEOPLE now who ARE educated and who DO care. I will be opening "Buds & Bowls"…a flower shop cafe at the Lawrenceville Inn…We will sell beautiful floral arrangements and be open for lunch Tues. through Sat. 11-3…Soups, Salads, Burgers and Sandwiches…all "clean," as much organic as possible, and local when available. I will NOT compromise on the Meat, Dairy, and Poultry. If I can’t procure the good stuff…I will not substitute with garbage ingredients…I look forward to serving ONLY the best…for those of you who DO care.(BTW…the menu is rife with Vegetables and MANY gluten free alternatives.)

  21. Bill Bendelow said...

    Lanette — I don’t eat a lot of soybeans (wife is allergic to soy) but maybe try some recipes on this website?: http://www.soyconnection.com/recipes/ I would have to think that you could get some other kinds of beans for around the same price (not quite as cheap, as soy is so heavily subsidized), and do be careful with soy as so much of it s GMO, like corn is in this country. Black beans? Lentils? I know of some great ways to make those…. :) I feel for you, trying to eat healthy on a low budget is tough. But it’s definitely better to eat less that’s good than to eat more that’ not good. If my meager brain can be of any further help let me know… what area of the country do you live in?

  22. execnomad said...

    Thank you for this letter and Mark thanks for posting. For the past year or so I have tried to eat only naturally raised, hormone/antibiotic beef at home and in restaurants. There is definitely a huge taste difference. It also means that I eat less meat overall (also a good thing). I love the suggestions of smaller portions to offset higher costs — who needs a 12 oz (or more) steak anyway? It is time to occupy our plates and take back the food system so that what we eat is healthy and delicious.

  23. Authentic Haven Brand said...

    Wonderful article and one that I will share! I am continuing the Haven family legacy as an Independent grass fed livestock producer. Through my value added manure tea business (yes, manure tea for your garden and indoor plants) I chat daily about the by-product from my antibiotic, growth hormone, GMO/GE feed, herbicide and pesticide free livestock. I raise my livestock for their purity of blood line generation after generation of livestock raised free of these contaminants does truly make a difference. From the health of my livestock, to the by-product they produce to the garden soil that is fed. Growers truly see a difference in their gardens. The more this type of information is shared the better it is for our health and my Industry as a grass fed and grass finished livestock producer. Thank you for taking the time to write this article and for encouraging Chefs to buy grass fed and grass finished beef (there is a difference)!

  24. jairsinyo said...

    Thanks for sharing! we are doing our job in Mexico City serving only naturally raised meats at Merotoro restaurant.

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