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Cattle Q&A with Mark Schatzker

Progressive Cattleman Editor David Cooper Published on 31 January 2011

00_schatzker_markMark Schatzker is a travel writer and columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail and author of the book “Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef.” An ardent defender of beef consumption, he traveled to Scotland, Argentina, Japan and Italy, learning their beef production methods and tasting their unique brand of beef.

He also writes about raising his own two head of cattle on a small farm outside Toronto, purely for his own family’s beef consumption. He shared with Progressive Cattleman Editor David Cooper thoughts about the book and the response it has generated.

Q. How long did it take to actually write the book?
A. I would say about three years, with a lot of travel. The concentrated writing was something like six or seven months, but there was obviously a great deal of travel before that … I felt it was very important to really see many different beef-eating and beef-loving and beef-producing cultures to see the difference.

We have a way of doing things here in North America [and] we very strongly believe in it, but there are radically different models and I just really wanted to see what they were like and taste the steak.

0211pc_schatzker_1Q. In the book you favor steak from cattle finished over a longer period of time. Explain why from the standpoint of quality and taste.
A. The blandest, mildest cow meat there is, is veal. As the animal gets older it takes on flavor, it just absorbs stuff – the food it is eating, and it gets into the flesh and that is where flavor comes from. That is not the only place where flavor comes from, but that is a big part of it.

Raising cattle is a business we’ve gotten very good at; turning them over quickly. I think the average age now of a steer slaughtered in the U.S. feedlot is 14 months. It didn’t used to be that way, a cow used to be much older.

There is a myth out there that older cattle are tougher, and to a certain degree that is true. But if the cattle are treated in a less stressful manner and they are given good food and they are gaining at a solid rate of gain – not too much and not too little – the beef can be exquisitely tender.

Q. What is the biggest challenge to producing that kind of cattle?
A. The economics. And the only way you can make the economics work is if you find a way to make it a value-added product. If you raise your cattle that way and sell them as a commodity system, you will lose your shirt …

But that is the problem with the commodity system, it is essentially a race to the bottom because it is about producing pounds of marbled beef as cheaply as possible. Anything you can do to cut your costs down, you pretty much have to do. Because the rancher next door will do that, or the feedlot next door will do that.

Q. Quantity versus quality comes up frequently in the book. What’s the key for North American beef to fit both those categories?
A. Yeah, I think it is possible. Listen, good steak and good beef is going to be more expensive. I’ve got a lot of complaints from people that complain about the beef that I promote – you can’t get it for $1.50 a pound at Walmart. Beef comes from big ruminants that take a long time to grow.

I think we can get better at doing it, though. As progressive cattlemen get better at doing it, the price will come down. I just think better beef is worth it.

Q. You emerge as a disciple of grass-fed beef. Any key reasons why?
A. If you eat a mouthful of grass and you eat a mouthful of corn, you are going to notice the grass is much, much more flavorful. The other thing is what scientists call secondary compounds like flavonoids, antioxidants and carotenoids that get into the meat when they eat grass.

There [are] more Omega-3 fatty acids and they are very volatile and they tend to cause and create more flavor compounds when you cook.

But with that said, I also think there is such a thing as great grain- fed beef. It probably doesn’t touch the greatest grass-fed beef for me, but it can be extremely good.

Q. What can a producer of corn-fed beef find interesting in your book?
A. I think what they could learn is that they need to figure what works well for them. There is no universal way. Every piece of land is different, not only in the soil and the weather, but also what is being grown nearby. I think the most important thing is for cattlemen to taste their own beef and decide how they want it to be and how their customers want it to be.

What’s your overall impression of feedlots?
I don’t think confinement is a bad thing. It is just a question of how it is done. I have visited some feedlots that I thought were really not bad at all and I have visited some that just struck me as awful places for any human to work and any cow to live.

That said, I think feedlots could be producing a much better product. You don’t have to feed them genetically modified steam-flaked corn and then give them antibiotics and hormones. You could feed them a lighter ration. Give them more roughage. You can do all that in the confinement setting.

Q. Have you had any response from animal rights groups about the book?
A. No, not really. I think maybe at some point I will.

Here is the thing – I think it is fine to kill and eat animals. I think you have to raise them humanely and treat them humanely and kill them humanely. If you do that, I don’t have a problem with it …

That is why I wanted to raise my own heifer and then go onto the kill floor with her to see what it is like. When it is done well, it really is not bad.

Everybody has this guilt with meat. They don’t want to think about where it comes from. They think that whatever they were eating was writhing in agony when it died. It’s just not that way, when it is done well.

Q. You criticize the USDA grading system as outdated. What needs to change about it to fit the quality?
A. I don’t know if it is possible to be able to assess the quality of a piece of meat by looking at it. I have just had too many counter-examples; I have had too many steaks that graded prime that didn’t eat well and I have had too many steaks that would grade select that ate superbly well …

It worked well when the USDA came up with this stuff in 1926. It wasn’t about marbling then, it was about overall body fat. They looked for fat in certain parts of the carcass that told you that the animal was eating well.

Q. What were some challenging and enlightening aspects of raising your own beef?
I raised her on grass and I also supplemented her with apples because I didn’t know if grass was good enough. In order to finish cattle with grass you need to know that you have really good grass, and that is a huge challenge … I think things worked out pretty well in the end. But it was hard to know when she was finished and what was the right time...

The rewarding part was knowing that she had a good life. I loved spending time with her in the fields. It is one thing to drive by a field or pasture and it is another thing to walk into the middle and spend an hour watching ruminants eat. It’s just mesmerizing. I could do it all day.  end_mark

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