Saturday, October 29, 2011

Meats of Wisdom - A Big History of Carnivory

The origins of human consciousness have fascinated me since since I was a young child – and in spite of my intense focus on the cosmic marriage between humans and meat – it is only just recently that I've been able to develop a more cohesive understanding of the role that meat eating has had in the epic of human evolution.

It's actually quite an unbelievable story – this one about the ape that took a liking to meat – it's a story that stretches backward to the big bang – and forward into the deep, unforeseeable future. Rife with speculation – yet contextualized by a mind-boggling mass of raw archeological data; we are able today, to infer and discuss more about the story of man's conscious awakening than ever before. And yet, so many fascinating questions remain – questions that can illuminate and deepen our appreciation of the very meats we now consume.

Over the months to follow, I'll share with you a selection of evolutionary episodes – mind-blowing nuggets from humanities deep past that tell the story of man, meat, and what it meant for the very fabric of reality on timescales bewildering to even the most earnest students of ancient human history.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I'll have a Hamburger with a Side of Skepticism....

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The nature of science is rooted in skepticism. We often get frustrated that 'science is always changing it's mind' - and yet this constant reflection, rejection, and adoption of theories is the very evolutionary process that allows us to advance as a society.

Meat is constantly the subject of intense scientific and emotional debate. If you browse through my previous blog posts here, it is clear that I have a 'bias' towards what we might call 'sustainable meats'. I put bias in quotes - because sustainability as a social goal can hardly be called such. Yet I am biased - but it's not in my dedication towards improving the sustainability of our meat supply - it's in my assumptions of how we get there....and indeed I am far from the only one guilty of this crime against scientific reasoning.

Where I work in Chester County Pennsylvania, we produce Grass-Fed Beef - feeding no grains, no added hormones, etc., etc. - you've heard the rap - we produce 'good beef' from 'happy cows' in a way that is 'better for the environment' - something very few in the US would second guess. Ironically though - the ones who do second guess this narrative are among the most credentialed in the meat sciences.

Recently, the American Meat Institute launched a new website and social media campaign - (not to be confused with our own I'll get to that in a minute) Myth Crushers has the noble intention of bringing science to the consumer to de-bunk the "myths" that are plaguing the modern protein industry. Check out their website, but some of what they call "myths" are directly in opposition to everything I hold dear- for example they claim that:

  • Added growth hormones in beef are not a concern for human health
  • Antibiotic use in livestock is not a concern for human health
  • Grass-fed beef is neither safer nor healthier than grain-fed beef
  • Feeding cattle corn is completely "natural"
To their credit - they do clear up two long-held truths that I fully endorse:
  • Nitrites in cured meats are not a health concern
  • Pork and Poultry do not receive any added growth hormones - ever
The project is all about bringing science into the discussion - and clearing up the muddled minds of consumers awash in a sea of biased anti-meat media coverage. It is a noble cause for sure, and I applaud the effort - yet I am most certainly not ready to say that their claims are completely correct.

In my beef files, I have tons of peer-reviewed journal articles that potentially 'de-bunk' much of the more shocking claims they make - but it's not as simple as "my science vs. yours" - these are often incredibly complex questions and this is the point. 
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The approach that the industry and Myth Crushers has taken runs under a paradigm of maximum efficiency. Too often in the 'sustainable food' media - this efficiency is unfairly portrayed as simply soul-less corporate greed....and while I'm not prepared to say that Cargill or Tyson do have souls - what Myth Crushers does convey is the industry commitment to sustainability - as measured by very selective indicators of efficiency. And therein lies the problem (...I think ;) 

Over the next months I've made it my academic job to throughly review the science behind the more important of the Myth Crushers claims. Some may pan out as the meat scientists claim (I really hate to say it, but added growth hormones in beef isn't looking like it should be a health concern for consumers). But whether I prove them wrong, or have my mind radically changed - is almost beside the point.

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There is big difference between Meat Myth Crushers and Mythic Meats - and it can be found in the common language. Certainly a "myth" can be an untrue story that is commonly believed - but Mythic Meats uses the term more in the Joseph Campbell sense - the idea of guiding stories that shape our values and understandings of the world. In this context, as we struggle to understand the mythic goal of sustainability as it relates to meat production - we perhaps need to step back and ask bigger questions as a society about what we want from our meats. Is beef just a free-market commodity, or does it have a web of complex threads connecting multiple aspects of our rural and urban communities that can only be understood from a more holistic perspective? 

I'll come back to the science behind Myth Crushers in the months to come - but in the mean time - let's all try to approach science and sustainability with the humble, apolitical respect that it's complexity demands.

(One practical way to do this is to "Like" both and MeatMythCrushers on Facebook ;)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Black Market Butchery

A Deliciously Illegal Grilled Leg of Goat (Photo Credit:

(legal disclaimer: the following entry in no way represents an admission of guilt to any crimes insinuated or directly discussed herein, the names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent) 

It's hard to believe I just committed an international crime! And for this particular transgression, I am indeed, a repeat offender. The illegal processing and sale of high quality meats!

(Photo Credit:
I awoke with the sun....or maybe a little later... and walked up the hillside onto my dear friends newly purchased land to prepare for what was to be be an inaugural feasting for the ages. Adjacent to her garden plot homestead lies a small goat farm run by a very fine older German farmer, lets call him Fritz ;) My friend had arranged for Fritz to slaughter a young buck from the herd the night before. We arrived to find an impeccably cleaned carcass hanging in Fritz's neighboring summer camp house. As I began to literally butcher this young goat (my meat cutting skills are the works) I was struck with the strong irony of a discussion I'd begun with my insightful colleague, Hannah Semler, the night before regarding our old stomping grounds across the Atlantic, on the coast of Maine.

Maine Gives a Green Light to Black Market Meats
My rough cut goat half....
Breaking the law in Germany....or am I?
(Photo Credit:
Sedgwick, Maine, located in the second northern most county on the east coast of the United States, is surrounded by an amazing community of progressive farmers and consumers. Indeed, my very first cow, Mabel, came from this town - so I was somewhat thrilled to learn that they just passed potentially landmark local legislation to support innovation in their local agriculture sector. Yet I say only "somewhat thrilled" because experience has shown me a dark side to the kind of policy this dreamy coastal village has put through.

The language of this new town ordinance is available here - but the basics are that it exempts  those local producers who sell their food on-farm, from any state or federal food safety regulations. When Hannah first brought this to my attention - I immediately drudged up memories from the worst dairy I ever worked for. A passionate elderly woman milking seven goats and one cow on 30 acres of land - and transforming that milk into a bounty of cheese, butter, and yogurt for sale to the local community (just to clarify this farm is NOT located in Maine). In theory, this is the exact profile of the type of farm this policy is intended to support - and yet despite my advocacy for small farms, I had to leave this operation after a mere 3-weeks because of horrendous hygiene conditions, and this farmer's unwillingness to adopt sound practices. She was producing the most filthy raw milk I have ever seen (and I do believe in drinking raw milk), but she believed she was immune from food pathogen contamination. Her attitude was echoed, almost verbatim, by Bob St. Peter, the politically active Mainer who helped get this regulation passed, in his quote that "it’s the industrial food that is causing food borne illness, not us [small farmers]". 

An Illegal Goat Heart (Photo Credit:
It is true, it is the large scale national-scope food recalls for products such as beef, spinach, and peanut butter that have all but destroyed public faith in the US food system. And it is equally true that some small farmers employ practices that research has shown can reduce potential food safety risks, such as grass-feeding of cows to reduce e. coli populations. But it is dangerous to make blanket statements about food safety and the scale of agriculture, and it might be even more dangerous to abandon all regulation of these producers based on this potentially false narrative.

Going back to the example of this dirty dairy I worked for - we might ask - was food safety policy really keeping her down, or actually helping her out. First - it is important to note that despite her micro-scale of production and aforementioned disgusting lack of sanitation - her small farm was still a Grade A dairy and cheese plant, among the smallest in the world and located in a highly regulated agricultural state. As an employee with a basic knowledge of food science - I was very much relieved to have a state inspector come for her quarterly cheese room inspection. Far from working to shut her down, this government employee made a few (fewer than I would have liked) suggestions to improve basic cleanliness. "Don't let this mold grow on these walls", "make sure your recording your temperatures properly", etc. Basic, basic stuff that any customer would want to have enforced. Yet despite her "on-farm store" - few customers ever got a close enough look in the creamery to realize they should never be drinking this milk (I never did the entire time I was there...and I'm willing to take pretty large personal risks with food safety).

Towards Smarter Food Safety Policies

Don't get me wrong, I emphatically applaud the Sedgwick community for a very creative power grab for their own food democracy. The US Federal government has far out stepped their bounds and States and Municipalities should have every right to self regulate their own food supply. But self-regulation and no regulation are two very different things. 

Hanging goat halves in a summer chateau
above a rural German village
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Back in Germany, at our little goat party, I grappled with these issues... I definitely do not want to break the law, internationally or nationally, and yet, I fear what types of production and processing might occur in a completely deregulated food economy (no matter how local and community-based it may be). I was quite happy with both the slaughtering and butchering work our team accomplished, but from a professional perspective, there were undoubtedly many food safety 'violations'. Clearly we are all fine and safe, but I wonder if food safety was even considered by any of the others feasting by the fire that day (it's not really the kind of thing you bring up when folks are eating), or if they, like many, assumed it's small-scale and therefore safe?

Much of food safety policy is based on a premise of 'the informed customer' - that is if a customer buys directly from a farm, there are (generally) far less regulations than if they buy a product in a store in a state across the country. Yet, even when customers can 'see' and walk around a farm, they rarely actually 'see' everything, and even those that do have access to processing rooms rarely have the trained eye or food safety background to identify many of the potential problems.  

At the same time, we do have inalienable rights to eat the food we choose, from the producers we choose. The answer most certainly is not total anarchy for local foods, but rather thoughtful, unobtrusive, and effective policies that support producers in the kind of life-long learning and vigilance it takes to produce safe meats and cheeses. 

(Reprinted from

Monday, March 14, 2011

Electric Blue Universe - The Secret Life of Sausage

Magnified Penicillium Sp. isolated from a 

Nord-Hessen Ahle Wurscht Sausage
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I just returned from the meat laboratory this evening and my mind has been swirling with the electric blue images we captured there - shedding light on the most mysterious secret life of the fermented sausage.

Cultured Penicillium Sp. isolated from a 

Nord-Hessen Ahle Wurscht Sausage

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Some readers here may recognize that authentic blue cheese is cultured with a special cheese mold, or fungi - of the species Penicillium roqforti - yet many may not realize the best sausages available are those fermented by a close cousin of this little blue stinker - Penicillium nalgiovense. 
Sporulating hyphae of Penicillium sp.
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Many of us don't want to think about eating a mold, but it is important to remember that these fungi produce both an array of outstanding flavor molecules, as well as acting to balance the delicate microbial 'eco-system' of the sausage rind -  impacting taste, aroma, and even food safety.

I recently had the opportunity to culture and isolate a strain of fungi from a rare fermented sausage - the Nord-Hessicher Ahle-Wurscht - soon to be Germany's first regionally protected sausage. Will we find a commercially available strain such at p. nalgiovense, or, given this producers traditional methods, might we find some strange new variant or species?

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 The genus of Penicillium  gets it's name from the latin for "painbrush"... no doubt for the paintbrush like shape it inhabits during certain stages of it it's life. Yet this fungi is also clearly a paintbrush in the highest artistic sense. These meat artisans sculpt their protein rich canvas's and paint upon them flavors and aromas with the help of these simple microbial tools.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Cow Whisperer

Every so often, someone comes along that has the power to radically change the way we view cows. In ancient times it was the tribal leaders and shamans who toiled endlessly in the earliest efforts of domestication. Today, bovine leadership is more dispersed and democratic, but no less mystical. Recently, a German friend told me about just such a humble pioneer in the south-western state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, just miles from the home of my great, great, great, grandmother. 

Ernst Hermann Maier is "The Cow Whisperer" - and as the title implies - he has remarkable insight into the omnipresent mist that the cow mind inhabits. Maier is part of the rapidly growing, yet poorly understood trend toward "behavior based management" ( which recognizes cattle as not just social creatures in a basic sense - but as creatures with rich traditions and transferable culture beyond anything we could have imagined in the past. What separates Maier from many others in the behavioral management camp is his focus on slaughter practice as the final component for behavior-based management systems. Maier, and his association Uria, are the unequivocal leaders in on-farm slaughter for beef cattle in Germany. 

On-farm slaughter is not new, fact it is easily argued to be among the oldest of "farm" practices - but Maier and others are clearly not proposing a return to the past. This isn't about some sort of antiquated romance of simpler times - it's about moving thoughtfully and carefully into the future. 

In the US - the clear leader in this field is in the Pacific Northwest - primarily on Lopez island in the puget sound of Washington State - where a farmer owned cooperative has created a mobile processing unit to go from farm to farm allowing cows to die where they live. Where the German's have outpaced us is in their poetically accurate recognition of the critical social element that these on-farm slaughter systems yield to our cattle. 

Cows are creatures of habit and home - they explore new environments with something Dr. Temple Grandin calls "Cautious Curiosity". They have a zeal for life like the best of us, but they also need time to get used to new surroundings. To push them onto a trailer and then into a dark sterile hallway before their ultimate demise is clearly unnecessarily cruel in the face of viable alternatives. 

Surprisingly, it took me a trip across the country - to Berlin - to network my way back home, here in Witzenhausen, where I had the pleasure to meet perhaps the youngest and most promising researcher in this field. PhD candidate, Katrin Julianne Schiffer. This remarkable women conducted her Masters thesis here on the social behavior of poultry - and she is now focused on several aspects of on-farm slaughter for cattle. 

Ms. Schiffer has already discovered a variety of meat quality aspects that can be improved through Maier's "gentle killing" methods, and is now focusing on refining the procedures so that we can be certain that more farmers can explore this option with the cutting edge of scientific knowledge behind their craft.

When I titled this blog "mythic meats" the idea was that we can explore exactly the meat production systems we would like to see in the future. It is people like Ernst Hermann Maier and Katrin Julianne Schiffer that help me to continue to believe we can get there. On-farm slaughter is still a long way off for many small-farmers - don't turn your back on your farmer because they can't do it just yet. 

The meat of the future is 100% grass-fed and slaughtered on-farm - we know it's true, yet it is almost impossible to find in most markets today!

Keep the conversation alive, tell your state representatives to support innovative farmers, and literally put your money where your mouth is....