Grass-Fed Beef Revolution: An Interview with Bill Kurtis
Photo courtesy of Amazon.com
Investigative journalist Bill Kurtis is well known for his time as an anchor for CBS News, his hosting of A&E news and crime documentaries, and now, his promotion of grass-fed beef consumption (as opposed to corn-fed beef).
He owns a cattle ranch that raises its beef with grass (and only grass) and sells it through his TallGrass Beef company. And in November 2007, he released a book of both recipes and the history of grass-fed beef called “The Prairie Table Cookbook”. The text makes the claim that cows were meant to eat grass and humans were meant to eat grass-fed beef, but that somewhere along the path, we digressed and switched over to corn-fed beef for corporate convenience. Kurtis hopes we revert back to our old ways that he thinks are not only simpler and tastier, but healthier.
So join me while I ask Bill a few questions about his book, his positions on related current events, and his favorite beef:
Chew on That: In your introduction, you outline the health benefits of grass-fed beef and state that grass-fed beef (as opposed to corn-fed beef) contains just as many Omega-3s as fish. While Omega-3s are highly recommended by doctors today, some might argue that loading up on Omega 3 acids is just a health trend, and in 30 years, doctors and the media will tell us to do the opposite. What do you think of the idea of health trends and do you think it is possible to disprove the health benefits of grass-fed beef in, say, 30 years?
Bill Kurtis: Certainly we’re leaning so much about nutrition and its interaction with molecular dynamics that it’s possible all our knowledge about our body will change in 30 years. We have to act, however, on what we know now. If the science appears credible, then we should rely on it. That’s how the medical profession works, just like law and countless others. We rely on credible research. Global warming is in a similar position. If 99% of the scientists believe the research that shows we’re approaching negatives consequences as a result of our burning fossil fuels, shouldn’t we take action based on that rather than wait for the final 1% to get on board?
COT: As you mention in your book, the initial rise of the meat industry ultimately left Americans both clueless and indifferent toward the sources of their beef. In your opinion, what major event or timeframe has caused America to be more conscious of where their meat comes from today?
BK: E. Coli has captured the most dramatic headlines followed by mad cow disease. These reports contribute to a negative image of the beef industry. Once a consumer becomes aware of the “problems” within the industry, he may go further to ask about humane treatment of the animals, use of antibiotics and hormones.
Rather than a single incident causing the revolution in how our beef is manufactured, it’s a rising tide of concern. My comparison is the movement against the death penalty. The constant news reporting of wrongful convictions revealed by DNA has caused a drop in death penalty verdicts. Eventually, the Supreme Court will interpret that as a change in moral standards and rule the death penalty as cruel and extreme punishment.
COT: You market the beef of Tallgrass Beef Company to be grass-fed and grass-finished. What exactly does the term “grass-finished” mean?
BK: It means that our animals eat only grass from conception to harvest. Until November 2007, the USDA defined “grass-fed” as 80% of an animal’s life on grass and 20% on grain. In November, that definition was changed to require a “grass-fed” animal to be on a natural grass diet for 99% of its life cycle.
COT: In many respects you contend that grass-fed beef tastes better than corn-fed beef because of its pure beef content, rather than fat. In the meat industry, some of the most expensive and highly sought-after beef (i.e. kobe beef) is marbled with fat – what is your response to this?
BK: Of course, taste depends on the individual. But I find corn-fed prime beef offered today to be bland and taste of fat. Grass-fed beef is more robust. It actually tastes like beef should taste. Kobe beef is grain-fed and is very rich tasting. In fact, it’s hard to finish it. But marketing has created this image of the ‘ultimate’ beef experience. Charlie Trotter is offering a Wagyu (American Kobe) steak for $250.00 in Las Vegas. I think it’s taking advantage of the suckers in town to have a good time. Ours will taste better.
COT: At what age are the cattle slaughtered for meat in your ranch? In other words, how long are they raised on grass?
BK: We harvest our animals around 18-24 months. A feedlot animal is harvested at 14 months.
COT: What is your opinion about the recent FDA approval to allow grocery stores to sell unmarked cloned beef?
BK: I’m against it. Unmarked food is bad for us all. It’s a victory for feedlots, pharmaceuticals and meat packers.
COT: Where do the recipes in your book come from and how were you able to find them?
BK: Michelle Martin is my co-author who is a historian. She researched newspapers from small towns along the trail drives of 150 years ago. In addition, she found diaries from drovers, homesteaders, army personnel and Indians.
COT: What is your favorite recipe in the book?
BK: Gene Autry’s Homemade Meat Loaf goes a long way for me.
COT: Do you cook recipes from your book often?
BK: I’m a griller who likes to let the meat be meat. It’s simple and fresh. So I’m more interested in extracting the natural essence of beef than covering it up with fancy sauces – right now.
COT: In person we discussed our familiarity with Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook. Do you have an affiliation with the local Prairie Grass restaurant and if so, how did this relationship begin?
BK: I’m part owner of Prairie Grass Cafe. My relationship with Sarah and George started with Green City Market. We’re all interested in changing America’s diet.
COT: How do you feel about movies like “King Corn” and “Fast Food Nation” that outline our country’s dependency on corn products, as well as our ignorance about where our beef comes from?
BK: I think they are great. The book the “Tipping Point” outlined the process by which trends saturate the consciousness, rising to a tipping point where the cause, fad, trend becomes a household word and therefore, general knowledge. These films contribute to the movement toward healthier food. So does TallGrass Beef. We’re all part of the rising tide.
COT: Along those same lines, what is your response to the two food novels by Michael Pollan – “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”?
BK: Michael Pollan’s work is the Rosetta Stone for grass-fed beef. Not only is he a wonderful, credible writer, his research is top notch. Pollan has become the spokesman for grass-fed beef and the need for a revolution in the American diet.
COT: Do you subscribe to the slow food movement that has been gaining increased attention as of late in America?
BK: Yes, I’m on the advisory board. Slow food is the reaction to fast food. It draws attention to the quality of our food and makes us think about what we’re eating. That’s half the battle. Another contributor to the rising tide.
COT: Which restaurant do you think serves the best beef?
BK: I like Harry Caray’s because they serve TallGrass beef. Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter are master chefs and prepare it so you’ll never forget it.
COT: Do you read food blogs? If so, are there any that you particularly enjoy (besides, Chew on That, of course)?
BK: I’ll go with Chew on That. Thank you for joining the revolution.
Thank you to Bill Kurtis for taking the time to answer my questions!