Where’s the beef?

New book by Scott Lively educates readers on where that steak you ordered came from.

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When you order a $25 glass of red wine at a restaurant, you want to know all about where it came from. Why not ask the same questions about the beef you’re ordering? 

For author Scott Lively, it’s all about information — and our responsibility to seek it. Lively, a year-round Vineyard resident for 20 years, is co-founder of Raise American, a 100 percent grass-fed, organic, American beef company, and has a brand-new book, “For the Love of Beef: The Good, the Bad, and the Future of America’s Favorite Meat.”

Lively, who has been in the industry for nearly 18 years, says he wrote “For the Love of Beef” because he was baffled about how little consumers know — or want to know — about the beef they are eating. He says, “If I went to a steakhouse and had the $55 filet mignon, and my buddy had the $65 rib-eye steak, and the menu just said prime Angus beef, we would probably say, Fine, bring it to me. No questions asked,” Lively suggests. “But that $35 bottle of red wine we’re going to split, we want to know what’s the vintage, what’s the varietal, where did it come from. And it’s just four glasses. But a tiny, $65, eight-ounce piece of meat that came from a living, breathing, 1,200-pound animal that died so you could eat it, we’ve been conditioned to just not ask certain questions.”

Lively emphasizes that he wants consumers to know they have a right to ask where their beef is from. He says that he embarrasses his guests all the time by pushing the question about a claim such as the beef being USDA prime by asking the waiter, “Well, how do you know? Show me the box. Why not, if it’s prime? If they’re a reputable restaurant, they will show it to you. You want to know that the proprietor knows where it came from, and that it’s not just some commodity meat that is overseasoned, slapped on your plate, and served at a high margin.”

What are the answers you want? Lively says it depends on why you’re eating it. We all eat food for a purpose. If you’re going out to a fine dining establishment and you want a rib-eye, he says, “It’s an indulgence. It’s like chocolate cake. It’s celebratory. I’m not eating it for sustainability, to make myself feel good. But on a daily basis, if I’m making a steak for my kids on a Thursday, I’m going to go for something that’s grass-fed and sustainable, where I know the producer, and something that is reasonably priced, like a skirt or a flank steak. Something a little less commercialized.”

So if you are walking down the meat aisle, how do you know what you’re buying? For every piece of meat in the grocery store, you will find an establishment number, which, if you Google it, will indicate how it was raised and by whom. You want to know the last person in the supply chain to touch that meat. Was it one of the big four packer monopolies — Tyson, JBS, National Beef, or Cargill? Or was it a small packer in your area, or a medium-size one? Lively stresses that the establishment number won’t give you everything, but it’s a start.

The next time you go shopping, notice that virtually every other product, from seafood to poultry to produce, has to have a country-of-origin label. But Lively reports that the beef industry and the pork industry have gotten out of having to disclose where their products come from. It’s because of strong lobbying groups — and that they mostly import their beef from Uruguay, Australia, and Canada, and they don’t want people to know that. Eighty percent of the beef you eat is imported from other countries. Astoundingly, Lively shares, “Under labeling laws, they’re still allowed to put ‘product of the USA’ on the package even if it came from three different countries, as long as it was cut, ground, or handled in America, which to me, customers should be absurdly offended by. You could have thousands of animals’ DNA in one pound of ground beef if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lively’s book covers a lot more ground, and so too will he on the Vineyard Haven and Chilmark library Zoom program at us06web.zoom.us/j/86929624758 on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 6 pm. Please contact tthorpe@clamsnet.org or amcdonough@clamsnet.org with any questions.

“For the Love of Beef: The Good, the Bad, and the Future of America’s Favorite Meat” by Scott Lively. Available at Edgartown Books for $16.95, and online.

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